Fishbein v. Kozlowski

Decision Date22 December 1999
Docket Number(SC 15996)
Citation252 Conn. 38,743 A.2d 1110
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Officially released December 22, 1999.1

McDonald, C. J., and Berdon, Norcott, Katz, Palmer, Peters and Callahan, Js.2 Jeffrey D. Brownstein, with whom, on the brief, was Gregory A. Thompson, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Robert L. Marconi, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, was Richard Blumenthal, attorney general, for the appellee (defendant).



The plaintiff, David Fishbein, appealed to the Superior Court from the suspension of his motor vehicle operator's license by the defendant commissioner of motor vehicles (commissioner) pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1995) § 14-227b, as amended by Public Acts 1995, No. 95-279.3 In this administrative appeal, the plaintiff claimed that because the police were not legally justified in stopping his vehicle, the commissioner's decision to suspend the plaintiffs license on the basis of the evidence of intoxication obtained pursuant to the stop was improper. The trial court dismissed the appeal, holding that the police had legally stopped the plaintiffs vehicle. The plaintiff then appealed to the Appellate Court, which affirmed the trial court's judgment. Fishbein v. Kozlowski, 48 Conn. App. 552, 711 A.2d 733 (1998). This court granted the plaintiff's petition for certification limited to the issue of whether the Appellate Court properly had concluded that the police had reasonable suspicion to justify stopping the plaintiffs vehicle.4Fishbein v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 247 Conn. 901, 719 A.2d 902 (1998). After the initial oral argument, we ordered supplemental briefs and additional argument before an en banc court on the following issue: "Is the question of whether the police have a reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify an investigative stop outside the scope of the four issues to be considered at a § 14-227b license suspension hearing?" We answer that question in the affirmative, and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.5

The essential facts of this case, as revealed in the record, are undisputed. On March 5, 1996, police officers were conducting a surveillance of a house at 180 Poplar Street in New Haven. The police suspected that the house was a favored spot for illegal drug transactions. At 2:15 a.m., a car driven by the plaintiff stopped at the house. The plaintiff turned off the car's headlights and motor, and a passenger exited the car and went to the door of the house. The passenger knocked on the door and had a brief conversation with the person who opened the door. The passenger then returned to and entered the car, and the plaintiff started the car and turned on the lights. Although the car was not yet in motion, the police officers effectuated a stop by pulling their cruiser alongside and turning on the cruiser's overhead lights.

Officer Peter A. Beckwith approached the car and questioned the plaintiff regarding his reasons for being at that address. When the plaintiff responded to the officer's questions, the officer smelled alcohol on his breath. The officer then asked for the plaintiffs registration and insurance papers. He had to repeat the request three times before it was understood by the plaintiff. The officer proceeded to order the plaintiff out of the car and administered a series of field sobriety tests to the plaintiff. The plaintiff failed each test. At that point, the officer read an implied consent advisory6 to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff agreed to take a breath test at the police station. Thereafter, the officer arrested the plaintiff on a charge of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor, informed the plaintiff of his Miranda7 rights, and brought the plaintiff to the police station where he administered two breath tests to the plaintiff. Both breath tests showed that the plaintiffs blood alcohol level exceeded the limit set forth in General Statutes § 14-227a.8

On the basis of these facts, the commissioner issued a notice to the plaintiff, advising him of a proposed ninety day suspension of his operator's license, and informing him that he was entitled to request a hearing on the suspension. Following the plaintiffs request, a hearing was held, at which the commissioner determined that the four elements set forth in General Statutes (Rev. to 1995) § 14-227b (f), as amended by Public Acts 1995, No. 95-279, §§ 1 and 2 (now § 14-227b [g]),9 had been met, and, therefore, that the plaintiff's operator's license would be suspended. The issues before this court on appeal are: (1) is the question of whether the police have reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify an investigative stop outside the scope of the four issues to be considered at a license suspension hearing pursuant to § 14-227b (f); and (2) if the answer to the first question is no, did the commissioner properly find that the police had reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop the plaintiff? Because we answer the first question in the affirmative, we need not answer the second question.

General Statutes (Rev. to 1995) § 14-227b (d), as amended by Public Acts 1995, No. 95-279, provides in relevant part: "Any person whose license or operating privilege has been suspended in accordance with this subsection shall automatically be entitled to a hearing before the commissioner to be held prior to the effective date of the suspension...." Subsection (f) provides in relevant part that "[t]he hearing shall be limited to a determination of the following issues: (1) Did the police officer have probable cause to arrest the person for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drug or both or while his ability to operate such motor vehicle was impaired by the consumption of intoxicating liquor; (2) was such person placed under arrest; (3) did such person refuse to submit to such test or analysis or did such person submit to such test or analysis, commenced within two hours of the time of operation, and the results of such test or analysis indicated that the ratio of alcohol in the blood of such person was ten-hundredths of one per cent or more of alcohol, by weight; and (4) was such person operating the motor vehicle...."

The plaintiff now argues that the "probable cause to arrest" element in § 14-227b (f) implicitly incorporates a requirement that the initial investigative stop of the driver of a vehicle be lawful. If the stop is unlawful, his argument continues, the commissioner is without authority to suspend his license. The plaintiff further argues that any other interpretation would violate the constitutional requirements of due process. Neither the commissioner nor the trial court considered this issue, as they both assumed that a determination of the legality of the stop was required. The Appellate Court upheld the trial court's determination that there had been a reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify the stop of the plaintiff's vehicle and concluded that the trial court had properly dismissed the plaintiffs appeal, but did not address the supplemental issue in this appeal. Fishbein v. Kozlowski, supra, 48 Conn. App. 557. The question before us is a matter of statutory interpretation and, as such, constitutes a question of law subject to de novo review. See In re Eden F., 250 Conn. 674, 690, 741 A.2d 873 (1999). "In seeking to discern [statutory] intent, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.

It is well settled that "[w]here the meaning of a statute... is plain and unambiguous, the enactment speaks for itself and there is no occasion to construe it. Its unequivocal meaning is not subject to modification by way of construction." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Pitchell v. Hartford, 247 Conn. 422, 432, 722 A.2d 797 (1999). This court previously has held that the language of § 14-227b (f), limiting the issues to be considered at a license suspension hearing, is plain and unambiguous. See Buckley v. Muzio, 200 Conn. 1, 7, 509 A.2d 489 (1986) ("[t]he language of ... § 14-227b [f] is plain and unambiguous"); see also Bialowas v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 44 Conn. App. 702, 711, 692 A.2d 834 (1997) (same).

We also have held repeatedly that the plain language of the statute expressly and narrowly limits the scope of the license suspension hearing to the four issues enumerated in the statute. See Harrington v. DelPonte, 229 Conn. 51, 59, 639 A.2d 1028 (1994) (statute limits issues properly raised on appeal from license suspension, and officer's failure to comply with regulation requiring certification to operate breath test would not be basis for overturning license suspension if other elements demonstrated); Schallenkamp v. DelPonte, 229 Conn. 31, 40, 639 A.2d 1018 (1994) (same); Volck v. Muzio, 204 Conn. 507, 512, 529 A.2d 177 (1987) (because hearing limited to four enumerated issues, multiple failures by arresting officer to comply with statutory dictates of § 14-227b not sufficient grounds for overturning commissioner's determination that operator's license should be suspended); Buckley v. Muzio, supra, 200 Conn. 7 (hearing limited to four enumerated issues and commissioner not required to determine whether subject of hearing understood consequences of refusal to submit to chemical testing before suspending license). The Appellate Court has held in Dalmaso v. Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 47 Conn. App. 839, 844, 707 A.2d 1275 (1998), that the admitted failure of the police to comply with subsection (b) of the statute, requiring police to afford the arrested person an...

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