Thursday, July 31, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Reginald Youmans

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Reginald Youmans
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
06-ALJ-21-0879-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

The 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.

BACKGROUND

Reginald 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. § 56-1-1090 (2006).

On February 16, 2006, Youmans filed a request for a contested case hearing to challenge the suspension of his license. The DMVH conducted a hearing on the matter on March 20, 2006. On October 23, 2006, the hearing officer served his order on the parties declaring Youmans to be a habitual offender and back-dating the suspension of his driver’s license to begin October 10, 2003, in an attempt to compensate him for the delay in posting his first conviction to his driving record.[1] The Department filed this appeal challenging the Final Order and Decision.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The 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 decisions are:

(a) in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;

(b) in excess of the statutory authority of the agency;

(c) made upon unlawful procedure;

(d) affected by other error of law;

(e) clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or

(f) arbitrary 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).[2]

DISCUSSION

Summary 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.

S.C. 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) as follows:

(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.

Pursuant 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 offender.

Equitable Estoppel

In 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.

To 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).

The 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.

Chavis, 200 S.E.2d at 391.

In 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.

Youmans 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.[3]

Well-established 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 against him).

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

Conclusion

Based 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).

ORDER

IT 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.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

______________________________

November 29, 2007 JOHN D. GEATHERS

Columbia, South Carolina Administrative Law Judge



[1] Although Youmans’ official driving record was not formally introduced into evidence at the hearing, the hearing officer reviewed Youmans’ driving record and read into the record excerpts from it. He also made Findings of Fact that were based on information from the official driving record, and Youmans has not challenged those findings.

[2] Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2006), administrative law judges must conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in Section 1-23-380(A).

[3] Like the Highway Department in Chavis, the Department was blameless in the delay of posting Youmans’ first DUS conviction to his driving record. Rather, those officials who were responsible for notifying the Department of the conviction delayed sending notice of the conviction to the Department, and no explanation for the delay appears in the record.

[4] DUS convictions based on suspensions for failure to file proof of financial responsibility are not included in this computation.

[5] The petition for such a reduction may be filed after two years have expired from the date of the Department’s decision finding the person to be a habitual offender.

[6] 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 final.


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