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Administration v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 20, 2018

MOTOR VEHICLE ADMINISTRATION
v.
MEGAN E. SMITH

          Argued: January 8, 2018

          Circuit Court for Saint Mary's County Case No. 18-C-16-001627

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          HOTTEN, J.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This appeal was taken from the review of a decision of the Circuit Court for Saint Mary's County, regarding a decision from Administrative Law Judge John Henderson ("ALJ"), that found Respondent, Megan Smith, was coerced into submitting to an alcohol breath test required by Md. Code (Repl. Vol. 2012), § 16-205.1[1] of the Transportation Article, ("TRANSP.").[2] In affirming the ALJ, the circuit court found that there was substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision that Respondent did not voluntarily submit to the testing. As a result, the Maryland Department of Transportation - Motor Vehicle Administration ("MVA"), timely noted an appeal to the Court of Appeals. The MVA presents the following question for our review:

Did the administrative law judge err in dismissing an Order of Suspension for a driver who had a breath alcohol concentration test result of .18 because the investigating officer refused to allow her to visit the restroom before submitting to alcohol chemical testing, where the officer (1) had reasonable grounds to believe that she had been driving while under the influence of alcohol and (2) fully and correctly advised her of the administrative sanctions that could be imposed?

         For reasons we shall explain infra, we answer the question in the affirmative, vacate the judgment of the circuit court, and remand the case with instructions.

         The administrative hearing adduced the following facts. On April 19, 2016, Officer Christopher Ditoto pulled Respondent over on Great Mills Road, near the intersection of Light Westbury Boulevard in Saint Mary's County, at approximately 2:05 am. Officer Ditoto observed Respondent operating a motor vehicle without her headlights activated. During the course of the stop, Officer Ditoto detected a strong odor of alcohol, and asked Respondent to exit the vehicle and perform field sobriety tests. After Respondent failed to execute the field sobriety tests in a satisfactory manner, Officer Ditoto detained her under the suspicion that she was driving under the influence or while impaired by alcohol and transported her to the Maryland State Police barracks. While at the police barracks, Officer Ditoto read the DR-15 form (Advice of Rights) to Respondent, [3] which included information regarding the nature of the detention, and the sanctions associated with any refusal to submit to a chemical test.[4] Officer Ditoto read the form to Respondent and thereafter she signed it. Respondent asked no questions but requested to use the restroom prior to taking the chemical test, but Officer Ditoto denied the request. In testifying before the ALJ, Officer Ditoto explained why the request was denied stating, "[s]he would not have been allowed to use the bathroom until after the [i]ntoximeter."[5] After deciding to submit to testing, the subsequent test revealed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.18, more than twice the legal limit, of 0.08.

         Administrative Proceedings

         The Office of Administrative Hearings heard the matter on August 31, 2016 and November 16, 2016. On the first day of the hearing, the ALJ considered testimony from several witnesses, including Respondent and her parents. On the second day of the hearing, the ALJ considered testimony from Officer Ditoto, who testified that the procedure used comported with his statutory duty under COMAR 10.35.02.08G[6] and TRANSP. § 16-205.1. Additionally the ALJ heard arguments concerning Respondent's Motion for No Action.[7] Respondent advanced several arguments, which included that she suffered from Trisomy X syndrome[8], a cognitive disorder that severely affected her ability to understand the DR-15 form. Respondent further asserted that she desperately needed to use the restroom, and when combined with the effects of her condition, resulted in an inability to consider the choices before her. In support of this argument, Respondent's father testified that Respondent was permanently disabled, and while in some ways self-sufficient, still required continued assistance throughout her day-to-day activities. Respondent presented no other evidence to support her cognitive deficit argument, the impact of the alleged deficit, or that Officer Ditoto was aware of any alleged deficit.

         At the conclusion of the evidence, the ALJ rendered several Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and granted Respondent's Motion for No Action. Although the ALJ determined that Respondent failed to satisfy her burden of demonstrating that she did not understand the DR-15 form, the ALJ found that Respondent had been coerced by Officer Ditoto's refusal of her request to use the restroom, which impacted her ability to knowingly and voluntarily submit to the alcohol chemical test required under TRANSP. § 16-205.1.

         Circuit Court Hearing

         The MVA sought judicial review to the Circuit Court for Saint Mary's County pursuant to TRANSP. § 12-209(a)(2).[9] The circuit court considered arguments during a hearing on May 16, 2017. In its written opinion on June 19, 2017, the court determined that the ALJ decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record, and that the officer's refusal to allow Respondent to use the restroom constituted a "road block" that impacted Respondent's ability to exercise her statutory rights under TRANSP. §16-205.1. See Forman v. Motor Vehicle Administration 332 Md. 201, 215, 630 A.2d 753, 761 (1993). Following the circuit court decision, the MVA noted an appeal to this Court pursuant to Md. Code (Repl. Vol. 2012), § 12-305 of Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "When this Court reviews a decision of an administrative agency, we take the same posture as the circuit court or the intermediate appellate court, and limit our review to the agency's decision." Anderson v. Gen. Casualty. Ins. Co., 402 Md. 236, 244, 935 A.2d 746, 751 (2007) "Where the agency's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, in the form either of direct proof or permissible inference, in the record before the agency, an appellate court may not substitute its judgment, even on the question of the appropriate inference to be drawn from the evidence, for that of the agency." Liberty Nursing Ctr., Inc. v. Dep't of Health & Mental Hygiene, 330 Md. 433, 442, 624 A.2d 941, 945 (1993). Stated differently, this Court "reviews an agency decision [to assess] whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision and whether the decision is based upon an error of law. Motor Vehicle Administration v. Krafft, 452 Md. 589, 603, 158 A.3d 539, 547 (2017). As we have previously stated, "the test for substantial evidence is 'whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have reached the factual conclusion the agency reached[.]'" Motor Vehicle Administration v. Shea, 415 Md. 1, 18, 997 A.2d 768, 778 (2010).). Further, the "test 'requires restrained and disciplined judicial judgment so as not to interfere with the agency's factual conclusions[.]'" Supervisor of Assessments of Montgomery County v. Asbury Methodist Home, Inc., 313 Md. 614, 625, 547 A.2d 190, 195 (1988) (quoting State Insurance Commissioner v. National Bureau of Casualty Underwriters, 248 Md. 292, 309, 236 A.2d 282, 292 (1967)).

         "While this standard accords less deference to an agency's legal conclusions than to its fact findings, a reviewing court should give weight to the administrative agency's interpretation and application of the statute that the agency administers." Motor Vehicle Administration v. Deering, 438 Md. 611, 622, 92 A.3d 495, 502 (2014). However, when the case "involves an interpretation and application of Maryland statutory and case law, our Court must determine whether the lower court's conclusions are legally correct under a de novo standard of review." Nesbit v. Gov't Employees Ins. Co., 382 Md. 65, 72, 854 A.2d 879, 883 (2004) (quoting Walter v. Gunter, 367 Md. 386, 392, 788 A.2d 609, 612 (2002)). As such, we will determine whether there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ findings while addressing the application of TRANSP. § 16-205.1 de novo.

         DISCUSSION

         We must consider the sufficiency of the due process afforded to Respondent and determine whether the officer's actions impermissibly induced Respondent to submit to an alcohol breath test. Under TRANSP. § 16-205.1, where an officer determines that reasonable grounds exist to believe that a person has been driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, while impaired by alcohol, while so far impaired by any drug, any combination of drugs, or a combination of one or more drugs and alcohol that the person could not drive a vehicle safely, the officer "shall" detain the suspected driver, advise the driver of the possible administrative sanctions associated with the offense, and attempt to conduct an alcohol breath test. TRANSP. § 16-205.1(a)(2) further indicates that the operator of a motor vehicle in Maryland is "deemed to have consented" to a breath test that measures blood alcohol concentration if the person should be detained on presumption of driving or attempting to drive while under the influence of alcohol. The MVA asserts that Respondent was advised of her statutory rights as required by TRANSP. § 16-205.1, and that Officer Ditoto's handling of Respondent was in accordance with COMAR 10.35.02.08G. In that regard, the MVA argued that ...


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