Sunday, April 20, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Marla Renee Crouse

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Marla Renee Crouse
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
07-ALJ-21-0615-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

THIS MATTER is an appeal by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (“Department”) from a Final Order and Decision of the South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (“DMVH”). The DMVH’s Final Order and Decision was issued following an administrative hearing held pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1030 (Supp. 2006). The Department contends that the DMVH Hearing Officer (“DHO”) was in error for rescinding the suspension of Marla Renee Crouse (“Respondent”) based on an allegedly invalid “Ishmael order,” that reopened a case pertaining to one of Respondent’s habitual offender offenses. The Administrative Law Court (“ALC” or “Court”) has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon consideration of the record, the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is reversed as set forth below.

BACKGROUND

The license to operate a motor vehicle upon South Carolina’s public highways is not a property right, but is a mere privilege subject to reasonable regulations in the interests of public safety and welfare. Sponar v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 361 S.C. 35, 39, 603 S.E.2d 412, 415 (Ct. App. 2004), cert. granted on November 17, 2005 (quoting Summersell v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 334 S.C. 357, 366, 513 S.E.2d 619, 624 (Ct. App. 1999), vacated in part on other grounds, 337 S.C. 19, 522 S.E.2d 144 (1999)). Consistent with this principle, S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090, as amended provides in pertinent part:

“No license to operate motor vehicles in this State may be issued to an habitual offender … (a) for a period of five years from the date of a final decision by the Department of Motor Vehicles that a person is an habitual offender … (c) until, upon petition and for good cause shown, the department may restore to the person the privilege to operate a motor vehicle ….”

Prior to January 1, 2006, the Department’s Office of Administrative Hearings held the hearings requested under Section 56-1-1090(c). However, in the summer of 2005, S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 was extensively amended by Act No. 128, § 22, 2005 S.C. Acts 1503 (the “DMVH Act”). Pursuant to the amended Section 1-23-660, the DMVH was created as a division of the ALC and, as of January 1, 2006, “the duties, functions, and responsibilities of all hearing officers and associated staff” of the Department were transferred to the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, it is now the DMVH that conducts these hearings.

FACTS

On July 23, 2007, Respondent was convicted of her third Driving Under Suspension (“DUS”) violation within three (3) years, making her an habitual offender under Section 56-1-1020. The Department declared Respondent’s habitual offender status by Official Notice on August 10, 2007, in which her three (3) DUS convictions from 8/24/05, 8/31/05, and 7/23/07 were listed as the offenses resulting in the suspension. Pursuant to Section 56-1-1030, Respondent appealed the suspension to the SCDMV.

The DMVH scheduled a contested case hearing for November 7, 2007, which Respondent attended represented by counsel. At the hearing, Respondent entered into the record an order issued on September 4, 2007, by the Chief Administrative Judge of the Magistrate Court for Florence County, Judge Eugene Cooper. Respondent stated that this “Ishmell order” re-opened the case pertaining to her DUS conviction of August 31, 2005, and that because only two convictions remained, she was no longer an habitual offender. Hrg Trans. 2:17 to 3:6. In response to questions from the DHO, Respondent admitted that she had pled guilty to the offense on August 31, 2005. In light of the Judge Cooper’s order, the DHO found that Respondent’s record would only contain two (2) offenses and therefore she should not be declared an habitual offender. Hrg. Trans. 4:3-11.

On November 9, 2007, the DHO issued a Final Order and Decision rescinding the habitual offender suspension of Respondent. In support of the rescission, the DHO found that Judge Cooper issued a valid order that removed one of Respondent’s habitual offender offenses. The Department now appeals.

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 decisions of the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A) (Supp. 2006); see also Byerly Hosp. v. S.C. State Health & Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 319 S.C. 225, 229, 460 S.E.2d 383, 385 (1995). The standard used by appellate bodies, including the ALC, to review agency decisions is provided by S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2006) (directing Administrative Law Judges to conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in Section 1-23-380(A)). This section provides:

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).

A decision is supported by “substantial evidence” when the record as a whole allows reasonable minds to reach the same conclusion reached by the agency. Bilton v. Best Western Royal Motor Lodge, 282 S.C. 634, 641, 321 S.E.2d 63, 68 (Ct. App. 1984). A decision will not be set aside simply because reasonable minds may differ on the judgment. Lark, 276 S.C. at 136, 276 S.E.2d 304, 307. The fact that the record, when considered as a whole, presents the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent the agency’s findings from being supported by substantial evidence. Waters v. S.C. Land Resources Conservation Comm’n, 321 S.C. 219, 226, 467 S.E.2d 913, 917 (1996); Grant v. S.C. Coastal Council, 319 S.C. 348, 353, 461 S.E.2d 388, 391 (1995).

In applying the substantial evidence rule, the factual findings of the administrative agency are presumed to be correct. Rodney v. Michelin Tire Co., 320 S.C. 515, 519, 466 S.E.2d 357, 359 (1996) (citing Kearse v. State Health and Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 318 S.C. 198, 200, 456 S.E.2d 892, 893 (1995)). The party challenging an agency action has the burden of proving convincingly that the agency’s decision is unsupported by substantial evidence. Waters, 321 S.C. at 226, 467 S.E.2d at 917.

ISSUE (1) ON APPEAL

1.                  Did the DHO err in finding that the order from the Magistrate Court of Florence County by Judge Cooper was valid and issued in accordance with the requirements established by Ishmell v. SC Highway Dept., 264 S.C. 340, 215 S.E. 2d 201 (1975)?

This Court derives its jurisdiction to adjudicate matters from its constitutional or statutory power. See Johnson v. S.C. Dep’t of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Servs., 372 S.C. 279, 284, 641 S.E.2d 895, 897 (2007); See also SGM-Moonglo, Inc. v. SCDOR, __ S.E.2d __, 2008 WL 2078132 (Ct. App. 2008) (“An administrative agency has only such powers as have been conferred by law and must act within the authority granted for that purpose.”). The statutory jurisdiction of this Court is set forth in S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-600(F) (Supp. 2006) as follows:

Notwithstanding another provision of law, the Administrative Law Court has jurisdiction to review and enforce an administrative process issued by a department of the executive branch of government, as defined in Section 1-30-10, such as a subpoena, administrative search warrant, cease and desist order, or other similar administrative order or process. A department of the executive branch of government authorized by law to seek an administrative process may apply to the chief administrative judge or his designee to issue or enforce an administrative process. A party aggrieved by an administrative process issued by a department of the executive branch of government may apply to the chief administrative law judge for relief from the process as provided in the Rules of the Administrative Law Court.

The Department contends that the order from Magistrate Judge Cooper of Florence County is void based on a lack of jurisdiction under S.C.R. Crim. P. 29 because Respondent was present and pled guilty to her DUS on August 31, 2005. However, it is apparent from this Court’s statutory jurisdiction, that the Department’s argument is definitively not a justiciable issue for the Administrative Law Court. See also S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Dep’t v. Kunkle, 336 S.C. 177, 178, 336 S.E.2d 468, 469 (1985) (holding that “it is firmly established that a criminal conviction may not be the subject of a collateral attack in an administrative proceeding”).

The Department also argues that Respondent should remain an habitual offender according to the records it maintains until she succeeds on an injunction to have her driver’s record changed. The operative statute pertaining to this matter is S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006), which states, in pertinent part:

An habitual offender shall mean any person whose record as maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles shows that he has accumulated the convictions for separate and distinct offenses described in subsections (a), (b) and (c) committed during a three year period…(a) Three or more convictions, singularly or in combination of any of the following separate and distinct offenses arising out of separate acts…(emphasis supplied).

When interpreting a statute words should be given their plain and ordinary meaning, so that the statute is applied as intended. See L.M. Koenig v. S.C. Dep’t of Public Safety, 325 S.C. 400, 404, 480 S.E.2d 98, 99 (1996). This Court has emphasized in previous cases that the habitual offender laws of South Carolina exist to discourage repeat offenders and to keep the highways free from drivers that threaten the safety of others. See S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1010 (2006). Courts are required to report motor vehicle related convictions to the Department. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-330 (2006). And, the Department is required to review its records upon a conviction for an offense that falls within the scope of the habitual offender laws. If its records reveal that the driver is an habitual offender, then the Department is required to revoke or suspend the license to drive. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1030 (Supp. 2006). See also L.M. Koenig, 480 S.E.2d at 100 (a case dealing with vehicular manslaughter where the South Court of Appeals stated that the Department of Motor Vehicles maintains its records for its own use.).

It is undisputed under the laws of Section 56-1-1020(a), that three (3) convictions of DUS within a three (3) year period results in designation as an habitual offender. Those three (3) convictions are determined by the “record as maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles,” as set forth in Section 56-1-1020, so that it may enforce the habitual offender laws of this State to keep the roads safe. The record presented by the Department at the hearing before the DHO clearly shows that on August 10, 2007, the Department’s record showed three DUS convictions. There is nothing in the record before the Court to show otherwise.

This Court finds that only the records maintained by the Department were in issue here. So long as the records of the SCDMV showed three DUS convictions, Respondent remained an habitual offender under Section 56-1-1020. To hold otherwise would allow the Court of Magistrate to thwart the intent of the legislature. If an habitual offender suspension is to be properly rescinded, then it would likely be after a proper motion for new trial was granted in the Court of Magistrate followed by an action in the Court of Common Pleas for injunctive relief in the form of an order requiring the SCDMV to remove the conviction in issue pending the new trial.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, that the Order of the DHO is REVERSED and the suspension of Respondent’s driving license and registration is reinstated. [1]

________________________________

John D. McLeod, Judge

S.C. Administrative Law Court

June 3, 2008

Columbia, SC



[1] The Court finds that the discussion and the decision pertaining to Issue (1) On Appeal is dispositive of the remaining issues raised the Department’s brief. See Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999).


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