Johnson v. State ex rel. Wyo. Dep't of Transp.

Decision Date12 February 2020
Docket NumberS-19-0169
Citation458 P.3d 40
Parties Ricky D. JOHNSON, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. STATE of Wyoming EX REL., WYOMING DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Appellee (Defendant).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellant: Stephen J. Darrah, Darrah Law Office, P.C., Powell, Wyoming; R. Michael Vang, R. Michael Vang, P.C., Laramie, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: Bridget L. Hill, Attorney General; Misha Westby, Deputy Attorney General; Michael T. Kahler, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] Ricky D. Johnson argued before the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) that a Powell police officer violated his statutory and substantive due process right to an independent blood test after he was arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol. The OAH determined the facts did not support his claim, and Mr. Johnson appealed the decision to the district court. While that appeal was pending, Mr. Johnson filed a declaratory judgment action in the same court arguing that the OAH, and therefore the district court on appeal, did not have jurisdiction to decide his claim. The district court dismissed Mr. Johnson's declaratory judgment action. Mr. Johnson appeals that dismissal, and we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] We restate the issues as follows:

1. Did the OAH have jurisdiction over Mr. Johnson's administrative proceeding?
2. Did the district court abuse its discretion when it found Mr. Johnson's declaratory judgment action did not serve a useful purpose and dismissed it?
FACTS

[¶3] On May 26, 2018, Officer Hite of the Powell Police Department arrested Mr. Johnson for driving while under the influence. Mr. Johnson consented to the breathalyzer test on the condition that he receive an independent blood test. Officer Hite transported Mr. Johnson to the Powell Valley Health Care Emergency Room. Here, the parties' versions of events diverge. Mr. Johnson argues Officer Hite prevented him from receiving the requested blood test at the hospital. Relying on Officer Hite's report, the Wyoming Department of Transportation (the Department) argues that once at the hospital, Mr. Johnson requested a blood test to take home and the hospital staff informed him there were no blood tests available to take home with him. Mr. Johnson explained that he thought the police needed a blood test, but when a sergeant present told him the police did not need a blood kit for their evidence, he decided he did not want the blood test.

[¶4] The officer performed a chemical breath test in accordance with the Department regulations, which reflected a BAC over .08. As a result, Mr. Johnson was issued a Suspension Order for his driver's license. He timely requested a contested case hearing in front of the OAH. During the contested case hearing, Mr. Johnson raised three issues, only one of which is relevant here: whether Officer Hite denied Mr. Johnson the ability to obtain a blood test at his own expense as permitted by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-6-102(a)(ii)(C). The OAH determined it had jurisdiction to decide all of Mr. Johnson's issues. At the contested case hearing, the hearing officer heard evidence from Mr. Johnson that Officer Hite denied him the right to an independent blood test. The hearing officer, however, gave greater weight to the version of events described in Officer Hite's police report and found that Officer Hite did not deprive Mr. Johnson of his right to an independent blood test. Accordingly, the OAH determined that the Department proved all the elements to uphold the suspension under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-6-102(e). Mr. Johnson appealed the administrative decision to the district court.

[¶5] He also filed a separate declaratory judgment action in the same district court asking that the court declare that "law enforcement violated [Mr. Johnson]'s statutory and substantive due process rights to independent testing." The Department filed a Motion to Dismiss the declaratory judgment action pursuant to Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), and the district court granted the motion to dismiss. Mr. Johnson timely appealed.1

DISCUSSION

[¶6] The district court applied the test set forth in Heilig v. Wyoming Game and Fish Comm'n , 2003 WY 27, 64 P.3d 734 (Wyo. 2003), to determine Mr. Johnson's declaratory judgment action served no useful purpose and should therefore be dismissed. It concluded that the issue in the declaratory judgment action is the same or substantially similar to the issue in the administrative appeal and that allowing the declaratory judgment action to proceed would collaterally estop the administrative appeal and give Mr. Johnson two bites at the apple. Id. at ¶ 10, 64 P.3d at 738. Mr. Johnson argues that Heilig is inapplicable because the OAH did not have jurisdiction to decide his statutory and substantive due process claim. If the OAH lacked jurisdiction, he contends, dismissal under Heilig is improper because the declaratory judgment action is the only remedy available to him. We therefore first examine the OAH's jurisdiction.

I. The OAH had jurisdiction over Mr. Johnson's administrative proceeding

[¶7] As Mr. Johnson correctly asserts, the OAH review of driver's license suspensions is "statutorily prescribed and limited." Regan v. State, ex rel., Wyoming Dep't of Transp. , 2012 WY 161, ¶ 21, 292 P.3d 849, 854 (Wyo. 2012). The scope of a hearing for purposes of determining a driver's license suspension is governed by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-6-103(b) (LexisNexis 2019) which limits the OAH's review to:

[1] whether a peace officer had probable cause to believe the arrested person had been driving or was in actual physical control of a motor vehicle upon a public street or highway in this state in violation of W.S. 31-5-233(b) or any other law prohibiting driving under the influence as defined by W.S. 31-5-233(a)(v), [2] whether the person was placed under arrest, or if a test was administered, [3] whether the test results indicated that the person had an alcohol concentration of eight one-hundredths of one percent (0.08%) or more, and [4] whether, except for the persons described in this act who are incapable of cooperating with the administration of the test, he had been given the advisements required by W.S. 31-6-102(a)(ii).

[¶8] Mr. Johnson argues that his right to an independent blood test does not fall within one of the limited issues the OAH is statutorily authorized to decide. Rather, he believes his issue is comparable to the one we addressed in Escarcega v. State, ex rel., Wyoming Dep't of Transp. , 2007 WY 38, 153 P.3d 264 (Wyo. 2007). There, Mr. Escarcega was arrested for DWUI while driving his personal vehicle. Id . at ¶ 4, 153 P.3d at 266. Mr. Escarcega refused additional chemical testing, even after the officer read the implied consent statute and informed him that refusing to submit to the testing would result in the loss of his privilege to operate a motor vehicle. Id . The Department suspended his license for six months and disqualified his Commercial Driver's License (CDL) for one year. Id. at ¶ 5, 153 P.3d at 267. Mr. Escarcega requested a contested case hearing arguing that the officer did not warn him that his CDL would be affected. Id . The OAH upheld the suspension and the disqualification. Id . Like Mr. Johnson, on appeal, Mr. Escarcega, "[p]erhaps realizing the serious difficulty of arguing non-compliance with the statutory scheme where the warnings given [ ] fulfilled the statutory requirement to the letter, [ ] attempt[ed] to raise the issue of due process." Id . at ¶ 22, 153 P.3d at 270. We held that neither the district court, nor this Court, has the authority "in an administrative agency appeal to address a petition for review regarding the constitutionality of a statute." Id . We held that the proper vehicle for such a complaint is a declaratory judgment action. Id.

[¶9] Our holding in Escarcega informed our decisions in two Laramie implied consent municipal ordinance cases. Regan , 2012 WY 161, 292 P.3d 849 ; Walters v. State, ex rel., Wyoming Dep't of Transp. , 2013 WY 59, 300 P.3d 879 (Wyo. 2013). In both cases, the appellants raised constitutional challenges to the implied consent advisements because the advisements included the increased penalty of mandatory jail time for refusing a chemical test under the Laramie ordinance. Regan , 2012 WY 161, ¶¶ 18-23, 292 P.3d at 853-55 ; Walters , 2013 WY 59, ¶ 21, 300 P.3d at 885. The appellants argued that the imposition of mandatory jail time for refusal represented a critical stage in the proceedings and that they were entitled to an attorney. Regan , 2012 WY 161, ¶ 18, 292 P.3d at 853 ; Walters , 2013 WY 59, ¶ 22, 300 P.3d at 885. The OAH determined it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of the statute and this Court agreed. Regan , 2012 WY 161, ¶ 21, 292 P.3d at 854 ("The OAH ruled that [appellants] were each given the advisements required by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31–6–102(a)(ii), and the appellants do not contest that they were given those advisements. The OAH therefore ruled in accordance with the law and evidence in finding that the statutorily required implied consent advisements were given."); Walters , 2013 WY 59, ¶ 22, 300 P.3d at 885 ("Ms. Walters claims that she ‘had the right ... to an attorney as soon as she was told that her choice of submitting to a chemical test would result in a possible minimum mandatory jail sentence.’ ... [T]his claim was not and could not have been brought before the OAH examiner under § 31-6-103(b).").

[¶10] The law is clear that administrative agencies have no authority to rule on the constitutionality of statutes, which is what the OAH was asked to do in Escarcega , Regan , and Walters . Escarcega , 2007 WY 38, ¶ 22, 153 P.3d at 270-71 (citing Riedel v. Anderson (In re Conflicting Lease Applications) , 972 P.2d 586 (Wyo. 1999) ); Regan , 2012 WY 161, ¶¶ 22-23, 292 P.3d at 854-55 ; Walters , 2013 WY 59, ¶ 21, 300 P.3d at...

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