STATEMENT OF 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 Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings (“OMVH”) dated October 4, 2007. The OMVH’s Final Order and Decision was issued following an administrative hearing held pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2951 (2006 & Supp. 2006). The Department contends that the OMVH hearing officer erroneously suppressed testimony by a law enforcement officer regarding the administration and results of a DataMaster test undergone by Respondent. The Administrative Law Court (“ALC”) has jurisdiction to review this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2008). Upon consideration of the briefs, the OMVH’s Final Order and Decision is reversed, and this matter is remanded to the OMVH as set forth below.
On September 12, 2007, Trooper C.D. Brigham of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety arrested Respondent for driving under the influence and transported him to the Georgetown Detention Center for a DataMaster test. Trooper Brigham subsequently suspended Respondent’s driver’s license pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2951(A) (2006) for registering an alcohol concentration of 0.15% or greater on the test. In accordance with S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2951(B)(2) (2006), Respondent filed a request with the OMVH for an administrative hearing to challenge his suspension. On September 18, 2007, at Respondent’s request and pursuant to OMVH Rule 12(A), the OMVH issued a subpoena directing Trooper Brigham to deliver a copy of the DataMaster videotape, the in-car videotape of Respondent’s arrest, the DataMaster ticket, and the implied consent form to Respondent’s attorney, R. Scott Joye, by September 25, 2007. That same day, Mr. Joye served the subpoena on Trooper Brigham.
The administrative hearing was held by the OMVH on October 1, 2007. At the onset of the hearing, Mr. Joye alleged that Trooper Brigham had failed to fully comply with the subpoena. Specifically, he stated that Trooper Brigham did not provide him with a copy of the DataMaster ticket or the implied consent form. Trooper Brigham did not deny that he failed to deliver those two items to Mr. Joye, but he claimed that Mr. Joye had copies of both items with him in his file. Upon determining that Trooper Brigham had failed to fully comply with the subpoena, and without any further inquiry into the matter, the OMVH hearing officer ruled that he would not accept any testimony concerning anything on the DataMaster ticket or the implied consent form. When Trooper Brigham questioned the hearing officer about his ruling, again mentioning that Mr. Joye had copies of the DataMaster ticket and the implied consent form in his file, the hearing officer merely stated that “I do understand that, but he did subpoena the State for a copy from the State and I have to go on the subpoena.”
On October 4, 2007, the OMVH hearing officer issued a Final Order and Decision in which he rescinded Respondent’s suspension. Specifically, the OMVH hearing officer held that there was no evidence presented to show that Respondent registered an alcohol concentration of 0.15% or greater on the DataMaster test. Additionally, the hearing officer ruled that there was no evidence that Respondent was advised in writing of his implied consent rights. The Department now appeals.
ISSUE ON APPEAL
Did the OMVH hearing officer err by suppressing Trooper Brigham’s testimony?
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The OMVH is authorized by law to determine contested cases arising from the Department. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2008). Therefore, the OMVH is an “agency” under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-505(2) (Supp. 2008). As such, the APA’s standard of review governs appeals from decisions of the OMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380 (Supp. 2008); 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(5) (Supp. 2008). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-600(E) (Supp. 2008) (directing administrative law judges to conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in § 1-23-380). 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(5) (Supp. 2008).
The imposition of sanctions is generally entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial court. Downey v. Dixon, 294 S.C. 42, 45, 362 S.E.2d 317, 318 (Ct. App. 1987). A trial court’s exercise of its discretionary powers with respect to sanctions imposed in discovery matters will not be interfered with by an appellate court absent an abuse of discretion. Karppi v. Greenville Terrazzo Co., Inc., 327 S.C. 538, 542, 489 S.E.2d 679, 681 (Ct. App. 1997). “An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court’s ruling is based upon an error of law, such as application of the wrong legal principle; or, when based upon factual conclusions, the ruling is without evidentiary support; or, when the trial court is vested with discretion, but the ruling reveals no discretion was exercised; or when the ruling does not fall within the range of permissible decisions applicable in a particular case, such that it may be deemed arbitrary and capricious.” State v. Allen, 370 S.C. 88, 94, 634 S.E.2d 653, 656 (2006).
The Department argues that the OMVH hearing officer committed error by suppressing Trooper Brigham’s testimony. The court agrees.
In deciding what sanction to impose for failure to disclose evidence during the discovery process, a trial court should weigh the nature of the discovery request, the discovery posture of the case, willfulness, and the degree of prejudice. Jamison v. Ford Motor Co., 373 S.C. 248, 270, 644 S.E.2d 755, 767 (Ct. App. 2007), cert. granted, Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 30 (2008); Samples v. Mitchell, 329 S.C. 105, 112, 495 S.E.2d 213, 216 (Ct. App. 1997). A failure to weigh the requisite factors demonstrates a failure to exercise discretion and amounts to an abuse of discretion. Jamison, 73 S.C. at 270, 644 S.E.2d at 767; Samples, 329 S.C. at 112, 495 S.E.2d at 216.
Moreover, regarding the sanction imposed in this case – exclusion of a witness’s testimony – our Supreme Court has ruled that it “is a sanction which ‘should never be lightly invoked.’” Baughman v. American Tel. and Tel. Co., 306 S.C. 101, 108, 410 S.E.2d 537, 541-42 (1991) (quoting Kirkland v. Peoples Gas Co., 269 S.C. 431, 435, 237 S.E.2d 772, 774 (1977)). It has further held that “[w]here the effect will be the same as granting judgment by default or dismissal, a preclusion order may be made only if there is some showing of willful disobedience or gross indifference to the rights of the adverse party.” Baughman, 306 S.C. at 109, 410 S.E.2d at 542. These holdings are in accordance with South Carolina’s policy favoring the disposition of issues on their merits rather than on technicalities. See Columbia Pools, Inc. v. Galvin, 288 S.C. 59, 61, 339 S.E.2d 524, 525 (Ct. App. 1986) (“We favor trial of issues on merit over securing judgment by slight technicalities.”).
In this case, there is no evidence that the hearing officer, in making his decision to suppress Trooper Brigham’s testimony, considered any of the factors set forth in Jamison and Samples. Moreover, despite the fact that the effect of the suppression order was the same as a judgment by default or dismissal, there is no evidence that the OMVH hearing officer considered whether Trooper Brigham acted with willful disobedience or gross indifference to the rights of Respondent in failing to fully comply with the subpoena. Accordingly, the court concludes that the OMVH hearing officer erred by suppressing Trooper Brigham’s testimony since he failed to take the proper considerations into account.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the OMVH’s Final Order and Decision is REVERSED, and that this matter is remanded to the OMVH for a new hearing.
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
Carolyn C. Matthews
Administrative Law Judge
June 8, 2009
Columbia, South Carolina