OF THE CASE
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles appeals from a Final Order and
Decision of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (DMVH). The
DMVH issued its order following an administrative hearing conducted pursuant to
S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1030 (2006). The Department claims that the DMVH hearing
officer erroneously back-dated the suspension of the driver’s license of Reginald
Youmans, whom the Department had declared to be a habitual offender pursuant to
Section 56-1-1030. The Administrative Law Court (ALC or Court) has
jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp.
2006). For the following reasons, the DMVH order is reversed.
Youmans was convicted of Driving Under Suspension (DUS) on three separate
occasions on October 17, 2000, March 3, 2003, and August 14, 2003, respectively.
As a result of these convictions, the Department declared Youmans to be a
habitual offender pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1030 (2006). Because the
Department did not receive notice of the October 17, 2000, conviction until
January 12, 2006, it did not post that conviction to Youmans’ driving record
until January 20, 2006. On that date, the Department sent Youmans a Notice of
Suspension informing him that, as of February 19, 2006, his driver’s license
would be suspended for a five-year period pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. §
STANDARD OF REVIEW
DMVH is authorized by law to determine contested cases arising from the
Department. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, the
DMVH is an “agency” under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). See S.C.
Code Ann. § 1-23-310(2) (2005). As such, the APA’s standard of review governs appeals
from DMVH decisions. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380 (Supp. 2006). The
standard used by appellate bodies, including the ALC, to review agency
decisions is set forth in S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006), which
provides as follows:
The court may not
substitute its judgment for the judgment of the agency as to the weight of the
evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency
or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify
the decision [of the agency] if substantial rights of the appellant have been
prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or
violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
upon unlawful procedure;
by other error of law;
erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the
whole record; or
or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted
exercise of discretion.
S.C. Code Ann. §
1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006).
of Applicable Law
The license to operate a motor vehicle on the public
highways is not a right, but a mere privilege that is subject to reasonable
regulations in the interests of public safety and welfare. See State v. Newton, 274
S.C. 287, 294, 262 S.E.2d 906, 910 (1980); State v. Kerr, 330 S.C. 132,
149, 498 S.E.2d 212, 220-21 (Ct. App. 1998). This privilege is always subject
to revocation or suspension for any cause relating to public safety. S.C. State Hwy. Dep’t v. Harbin, 226 S.C. 585, 595, 86 S.E.2d 466, 470 (1955).
The South Carolina Habitual Offender Act, S.C. Code
Ann. §§ 56-1-1010 through -1130, penalizes repeat traffic violators
by revocation or suspension of their driving privileges. S.C. Code Ann.
§ 56-1-1030 (2006) provides in pertinent part:
When a person is
convicted of one or more of the offenses listed in Section 56-1-1020(a), (b),
or (c), the Department of Motor Vehicles must review its records for that
person. If the department determines after review of its records that the
person is a habitual offender as defined in Section 56-1-1020, the department
must revoke or suspend the person’s driver’s license.
If the department
finds the person to be a habitual offender, the department shall direct the
person not to operate a motor vehicle on the highways of this State and to
surrender his driver’s license or permit to the department. A resident of South Carolina found to be a habitual offender may appeal the decision to the Division of
Motor Vehicle Hearings in accordance with its rules of procedure.
Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006) defines a habitual offender to include, among
others, a person whose record as maintained by the Department shows that he has
accumulated, in a three-year period, three or more convictions for driving a
motor vehicle while his driver's license has been suspended or revoked (except when
the suspension is for failure to file proof of financial responsibility).
The policies underlying the Habitual Offender Act are set
forth in S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1010 (2006)
(a) To provide
maximum safety for all persons who use the public highways of this State; and
(b) To deny the
privilege of operating motor vehicles on such highways to persons who by their
conduct and record have demonstrated their indifference to the safety and
welfare of others and their disrespect for the laws of this State; and
(c) To discourage repetition of unlawful acts by
individuals against the peace and dignity of this State and her political
subdivisions and to impose additional penalties upon habitual offenders who
have been convicted repeatedly of violations of the traffic laws of this State.
to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090 (2006), the length of a habitual offender
suspension is five years, unless the suspension period is reduced to two years
as permitted by subsection (c) of section 56-1-1090. Significantly, subsection
(a) of section 56-1-1090 provides that the five-year suspension period begins
on the date of the Department's final decision that a person is a habitual
his order, the hearing officer cited fairness as the basis for back-dating the
suspension of Youmans’ driver’s license. At the DMVH hearing, Youmans had argued
that the Department should be equitably estopped from suspending his license
because he was prejudiced by the Department's delay in posting his first DUS
conviction, which occurred on October 17, 2000, to his driving record until
January 20, 2006. The hearing officer concluded that Youmans must be declared
a habitual offender as of October 10, 2003, the date that the Department posted
Youmans’ third DUS conviction to his driving record.
prove estoppel against the government, the relying party must prove: (1) lack
of knowledge and of the means of knowledge of the truth as to the facts in
question; (2) justifiable reliance upon the government's conduct; and (3) a
prejudicial change in position. Grant v. City of Folly Beach, 346 S.C.
74, 551 S.E.2d 229, 232 (2001) (citing Midlands Utility, Inc. v. S.C. Dep’t
of Health and Envtl. Control, 298 S.C. 66, 378 S.E.2d 256 (1989)).
Importantly, “[t]he fundamental basis for the estoppel is the justification of
the conduct of the party claiming the estoppel.” Hacker v. State Liquor Auth.,
19 N.Y.2d 177, 225 N.E.2d 512, 278 N.Y.S.2d 806 (N.Y. 1967) (quoting 3
Williston, Contracts (rev. ed., 1936), § 692, p. 1998).
Department argues that any reliance which Youmans placed on the delay in
posting his first DUS conviction was not justified because he was charged with
knowing that his license would be suspended because of his three DUS
convictions. The Department cites State v. Chavis, 261 S.C. 408, 200
S.E.2d 390 (1973) in support of its position.
In Chavis, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a county court
judgment ordering the South Carolina Highway Department to reinstate the
driver’s license of a motorist who had refused to submit to a breathalyzer test
and was later convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor.
Although he was arrested on December 1, 1971, and convicted on March 7, 1972,
the Department was not notified of the refusal or the conviction until on or
about February 1, 1973. On February 8, 1973, the Department notified the
motorist that his license would be suspended for three months for his refusal
to submit to a breathalyzer test. On February 22, 1973, the Department notified the motorist that his driver’s license would be suspended for a further period
of six months due to his conviction. The county court held that the length of
time between the refusal and conviction and the subsequent license suspensions
was unreasonable and that the Department was estopped from effecting the
suspensions. The South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the motorist was
not entitled to relief because there was no showing of real prejudice to the
motorist. The Court included in its reasoning the following observations:
The record is devoid
of any evidence tending to give rise to an inference of any prejudice to [the
motorist] from the delay of local officials in reporting to the Highway
Department. [The motorist] was himself charged with knowledge of the law, and
that thereunder his license was required to be suspended. There is nothing in
the record to suggest that he sought, wished or desired to have the suspensions
promptly ordered so that he could get them behind him. For aught the record
shows, he simply kept quiet and continued to drive in the hope that his license
suspensions would somehow or other get overlooked and never be imposed.
S.E.2d at 391.
the instant case, there is nothing in the record to show that, between Youmans’
third conviction and his receipt of the January 20, 2006, Notice of Suspension,
he made any attempt to hasten the beginning of the suspension so that he could
get it behind him. In fact, Youmans took the position that he was unaware that
he would be declared a habitual offender subject to a five-year suspension of
driving privileges and that, had he known so, he would not have left his former
job and incurred out-of-pocket expenses to start a truck driving career. He testified
that he had relinquished a former job for which he had earned an annual salary
of approximately $40,000 to begin a new career in commercial driving and that
he had incurred out-of-pocket expenses for the training and credentials
necessary for his new career. Later, his employment as a truck driver was
terminated due to his habitual offender suspension. However, his employer's
Human Resource Director has stated that the company would seek his services
again once his license suspension ends.
also testified that he earned more money as a truck driver than he did at his
previous job. Therefore, once he is able to resume his occupation as a truck
driver, his income will once again exceed what he earned in his previous
career. In the meantime, he will suffer the loss of income from his driving
job. However, this Court must determine whether Youmans’ loss has truly
resulted from the inaction of those responsible for notifying the Department of
his first DUS conviction or whether his reliance on such inaction was unjustified.
precedent charges individuals with knowledge of the law, including the provisions
of the South Carolina Habitual Offender Act. See, e.g., In re Estate of Holden, 343 S.C. 267, 539 S.E.2d 703 (2000) (quoting Smothers v. U.S.
Fid. & Guar. Co., 322
S.C. 207, 210-211, 470 S.E.2d 858 (Ct.
App. 1996)) (“Everyone is
presumed to have knowledge of the law and must exercise reasonable care to
protect his interests.”). Therefore, this Court is constrained to conclude
that Youmans had no reasonable expectation that he would not be declared a
habitual offender. Cf. State v. Rosenthal, 107 Nev. 772, 819 P.2d 1296 (Nev. 1991) (doctrine of
equitable estoppel did not bar respondent’s placement on Nevada Gaming
Commission’s List of Excluded Persons despite nine-year delay in following
through with initiation of exclusion proceedings because respondent had no
reasonable expectation that exclusion proceedings would not be instituted
Because Youmans, like all others falling within the
definition of a habitual offender, is charged with knowledge of the legal
consequences of his actions, his reliance on the inaction of
those responsible for notifying the Department of his first conviction was not justified.
Therefore, the doctrine of equitable estoppel does not
apply to his case.
Application of Habitual Offender Act to Youmans
Importantly, the provision of maximum safety for all persons who
use South Carolina's public highways is one of the policies underlying the Habitual
Offender Act. Therefore, this court is compelled to apply the Act's provisions
to Youmans in a manner that is neutral and fair to all who are to be protected
by the Act.
Under S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006),
a person whose record, as maintained by the Department, shows that he
has accumulated three or more DUS convictions in a three-year period is
included, among others, in the definition of a habitual offender.
Youmans’ record, as maintained by the Department, did not show that he had
accumulated three DUS convictions in a three-year period until the Department posted
the first of the three DUS convictions on January 20, 2006. Therefore, the
hearing officer should not have interpreted section 56-1-1020 to declare
Youmans a habitual offender as of October 10, 2003.
Further, Youmans was actually driving during a portion of the period
that the DMVH determined to be appropriate for Youmans’ license suspension
(October 10, 2003 to October 10, 2008). Therefore, the true effect of back-dating
Youmans’ suspension would be a reduction in the amount of real time that he
must forego driving privileges. However, the only provision in the Habitual
Offender Act that allows for a habitual offender to satisfy the five-year
suspension without enduring that suspension in real time is subsection (c) of
S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090 (2006). Under Section 56-1-1090(c), a
habitual offender may apply for a reduction of the suspension to a two-year
period for good cause shown.
There is no provision in the Habitual Offender Act that allows a suspension
under Section 56-1-1090 to be back-dated, such that a habitual offender who has
not met the requirements of subsection (c) can avoid the full five years of actual
loss of driving privileges. In fact, subsection (a) of Section 56-1-1090 requires
the five-year suspension period to begin on the date of the Department's final
decision that a person is a habitual offender.
Therefore, until Youmans applies for, and is granted, a
reduction under Section 56-1-1090(c), his entire
suspension time must involve the actual loss of driving privileges.
Youmans’ temporary loss of employment is indeed unfortunate;
however, it would be unfair to others to whom the Habitual Offender Act has
been applied and to the public at large to make an exception for Youmans that
has no support in the law.
on the foregoing, I conclude that substantial rights of the Department have
been prejudiced because the hearing officer’s conclusion that Youmans’ suspension
should be back-dated violates the Habitual Offender Act and is affected by an
error in the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Therefore, the
DMVH order must be reversed. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(5)(a), (d) (Supp. 2006) (allowing reviewing court to reverse agency decision if substantial
rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the conclusions violate
constitutional or statutory provisions or are affected by other error of law).
IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the Final Order and Decision of the DMVH is REVERSED and that the Department’s designated suspension period for Youmans’
driver’s license, February 19, 2006 to February 19, 2011, is reinstated.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
November 29, 2007 JOHN
Columbia, South Carolina Administrative
The beginning date remains the same if the
Department’s decision is affirmed on appeal. § 56-1-1090(a). The Notice of
Suspension sent to Youmans is dated January 20, 2006. However, it indicates the
suspension’s beginning date as February 19, 2006. The Notice advises motorists
that if a hearing is desired, it must be requested within 30 days of the date
of the Notice and that if a hearing is not requested, the suspension will
become effective on the beginning date indicated. That date is apparently the
date on which the Department considers its habitual offender declaration to be