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Exclusionary Rule Not Applicable in License Revocation Proceedings

The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion this morning which it stated served “as a reminder that, unless our Supreme Court holds otherwise, the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule does not apply in civil proceedings such as driver’s license revocation hearings, even if those proceedings could be viewed as quasi-criminal in nature.”

In Combs v. Robertson, the trial court concluded in the criminal proceedings that the petitioner Combs was stopped by police without reasonable suspicion. The officer had received an anonymous report of a possible drunk driver on U.S. 52 North, which described a blue Ford Explorer weaving on the road. The officer intercepted a vehicle matching the description when it exited U.S. 52 North and followed the vehicle for a time. During this time, the officer did not observe any weaving but after a while did see the vehicle make a “slight cross of the center” line, although this road did not have a painted line in the center.

After the officer stopped Combs, he smelled noticed a strong odor of alcohol and that Combs had bloodshot eyes. When asked, Combs admitted to consuming a beer earlier in the evening. The officer then subjected Combs to various field sobriety tests, which she did not perform to his satisfaction. Based on these observations, the officer arrested Combs for dwi and took Combs to the police station for chemical testing. When Combs was requested to submit to a breath test (after being informed of her implied consent rights), she refused.

Combs later filed a motion seeking to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop, arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop. The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures by the the government. A traffic stop constitutes a seizure, and for a police officer to make a traffic stop, he must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a traffic violation. If he does not, then the exclusionary rule applies which means that any evidence obtained during such traffic stop is not admissible.

The trial court granted Combs’ motion and because the evidence obtained during the stop was suppressed, the State dismissed the criminal impaired driving charge against Combs. However, in addition to criminal penalties for impaired driving, North Carolina statute also provides that the DMV shall revoke the driver’s license for a one-year period when a driver refuses to submit to a breath test after being charged with an implied consent offense. DWI is such an implied consent offense.

Therefore, even after Combs’ criminal charge was dismissed, the DMV continued its proceedings to revoke Combs license based on her refusal to submit to the breath test. Combs challenged these proceedings, arguing that evidence obtained during the stop should not be admissible during these proceedings under the exclusionary rule because the stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The hearing officer at the administrative hearing rejected this argument and affirmed the revocation of Combs’ license. When Combs appealed the hearing officer’s decision, the trial court reversed citing “insufficient evidence” but did not further explain its reasoning. The DMV then appealed the trial court’s decision to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals noted that it has previously held that “whether an officer had ‘reasonable and articulable suspicion for the initial stop is not an issue to be reviewed’ in a license revocation hearing.” The only inquiry that should be made with respect to the police officer is whether he had “reasonable grounds to believe that the person had committed an implied-consent offense” because “[t]he propriety of the initial stop is not within the statutorily-prescribed purview of a license revocation hearing.”

The court concluded, as it has before in prior cases, that the exclusionary rule is not applicable to license revocation hearings. When a court determines whether a person’s license was properly revoked, it is “not concerned with the admissibility or suppression of evidence” because “[t]he question of the legality of his arrest . . . [is] simply not relevant to any issue presented in the hearing to determine whether [the respondent’s] license was properly revoked.”

Instead, the relevant issue for a court on appeal is “whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the agency’s finding that [the officer] had reasonable grounds to believe an implied consent offense occurred—i.e., whether there were reasonable grounds for the officer to believe Combs had been driving while impaired.” The court noted that the officer smelled alcohol on Combs’ breath and observed her bloodshot eyes. In addition, Combs admitted that she had consumed a beer earlier in the evening. Combs also swayed when exiting her vehicle and failed three field sobriety tests. Therefore, the court concluded that “[t]his evidence readily supports the hearing officer’s finding that reasonable grounds existed to believe Combs was drunk.”

The court concluded its opinion by noting that the supreme courts in several other states have applied the exclusionary rule in civil license revocation proceedings. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court has not yet ruled on this issue. Because the court of appeals has previously ruled on this issue and “one panel of [the court of appeals] cannot overturn another,” the only way that the existing rule in North Carolina can change is for the North Carolina Supreme Court to do it. Until then, the exclusionary will not be applicable to civil license revocation proceedings in North Carolina.

If you have been arrested for impaired driving, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman Car Accident & Injury Lawyers, (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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