St. John v. Thomas, COA16-847

Docket NºNo. COA16-847
Citation798 S.E.2d 814
Case DateMay 02, 2017
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

798 S.E.2d 814 (Table)

Jeffrey Blake ST. JOHN, Petitioner,
Kelly J. THOMAS, Commissioner, North CarolinaDivision of Motor Vehicles, Department of Transportation, Respondent.

No. COA16-847

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Filed: May 2, 2017

Arnold & Smith, PLLC, Charlotte, by Laura M. Cobb, for petitioner-appellant.

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Kathryne E. Hathcock, for respondent-appellee.


Petitioner Jeffrey Blake St. John appeals from a superior court order affirming the decision of the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of the North Carolina Department of Transportation to revoke his driver's license based on his willful refusal to submit to a chemical analysis of his breath after he was arrested for impaired driving. On appeal, petitioner primarily challenges the DMV's conclusions that the arresting officer had reasonable grounds to believe that petitioner had committed an implied consent offense and that petitioner willfully refused to submit to a chemical analysis of his breath. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the superior court's order.

I. Background

At 2:01 p.m. on 23 April 2015, North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper J.C. Lindley received a report of a car accident in Union County. After Trooper Lindley arrived at the scene, he discovered that petitioner's Lexus sedan had crashed into the back of an Isuzu wagon as it was sitting idle at a stop sign. While speaking with petitioner, Trooper Lindley noticed that petitioner, who had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath, was "very unsteady" and "could barely stand up." Petitioner's eyes were red and glassy, and his speech was slurred.

It is undisputed that petitioner consumed alcohol before the accident, but the point at which that consumption took place is not entirely clear: Trooper Lindley stated that petitioner admitted that "he had two glasses of wine [,]" but according to petitioner, he qualified that admission by explaining that he had not consumed any wine after midnight of the night before, approximately fourteen hours before the accident occurred.

Petitioner performed several field sobriety tests at Trooper Lindley's request. In scoring the tests, Trooper Lindley observed that petitioner exhibited six of the possible six clues (of impairment) on the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test, six of a possible eight clues on the Walk and Turn Test, and four of a possible four clues on the One-Leg Stand Test. Trooper Lindley then administered a portable breath test, the Alco-Sensor test, to petitioner. The Alco-Sensor was "positive for alcohol," but petitioner refused to submit a second breath sample. Consequently, Trooper Lindley arrested petitioner for, inter alia , impaired driving and transported him to the Union County Jail.

On the way to the jail, Trooper Lindley explained that law enforcement would request that petitioner submit to either a Toxilyzer breath test or a blood test to measure his blood alcohol level. Petitioner claims that he informed Trooper Lindley that he would not take the breath test but that he would provide a blood sample. However, Trooper Lindley did not recall petitioner making this statement. At 3:15 p.m., Trooper Lindley informed petitioner of his implied consent rights, both orally and in writing in accordance with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(a), and asked petitioner to submit a sample of his breath for a chemical analysis. Petitioner refused both to sign the implied consent rights form and to submit to a breath sample.

By letter dated 7 May 2015, the DMV notified petitioner that his driver's license would be revoked for willfully refusing to submit to a chemical analysis. Petitioner contested the revocation at a hearing before an officer of the DMV on 3 November 2015. The hearing officer upheld the revocation, finding that the evidence was sufficient to conclude that all of the statutory prerequisites for revocation had been met—specifically, that petitioner was charged with an implied consent offense; that Trooper Lindley had reasonable grounds to believe petitioner had committed an implied consent offense; that petitioner was notified of his rights under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(a) ; and that petitioner willfully refused to submit to a chemical analysis of his breath.

Petitioner appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Union County Superior Court, which found that sufficient evidence in the record supported the hearing officer's findings of fact; that the findings supported the hearing officer's conclusions of law; and that the hearing officer had not committed an error of law in revoking petitioner's driver's license. As a result, on 21 March 2016, the superior court entered an order affirming the DMV's decision. Petitioner now appeals from the superior court's order.

II. Discussion

A. Generally Applicable Law and Standard of Review

When a person drives any vehicle on a road or public vehicular area "[w]hile under the influence of an impairing substance[ ] or [a]fter having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has ... an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more [,]" that person has committed the implied consent offense of impaired driving. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-138.1(a)(1), (2) (2015). Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(a) (2015), "[a]ny law enforcement officer who has reasonable grounds to believe that the person charged has committed the implied-consent offense may obtain a chemical analysis of the person." If a person charged with an implied consent offense willfully refuses to submit to a chemical analysis, his license will be revoked for twelve months. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(d) (2015).

The person charged, however, may contest the license revocation at a civil hearing before an officer of the DMV. Id. The hearing officer is limited to consideration of whether:

(1) The person was charged with an implied-consent offense or the driver had an alcohol concentration restriction on the driver[']s license pursuant to G.S. 20-19 ;1

(2) A law enforcement officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the person had committed an implied-consent offense or violated the alcohol concentration restriction on the driver[']s license;

(3) The implied-consent offense charged involved death or critical injury to another person, if this allegation is in the affidavit;2

(4) The person was notified of the person's rights as required by subsection (a); and

(5) The person willfully refused to submit to a chemical analysis.

Id. If the DMV sustains the revocation following the hearing, the person charged is entitled to file a petition for review in the "superior court district ... where the charges were made[.]" N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(e) (2015). In this context, the superior court acts as an "appellate court," not "the trier of fact." Johnson v. Robertson , 227 N.C. App. 281, 286, 742 S.E.2d 603, 607 (2013).

By statute, the superior court's review is "limited to whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's findings of fact and whether the conclusions of law are supported by the findings of fact and whether the Commissioner committed an error of law in revoking the license." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-16.2(e). Our review of the superior court's decision is comprised of "the following inquiry: ‘(1) determining whether the trial court exercised the appropriate scope of review and, if appropriate, (2) deciding whether the court did so properly.’ " Robertson , 227 N.C. App. at 286-87, 742 S.E.2d at 607 (quoting ACT-UP Triangle v. Comm'n for Health Servs. , 345 N.C. 699, 706, 483 S.E.2d 388, 392 (1997) ).

B. Findings of Fact

As an initial matter, we address petitioner's argument that the hearing officer's findings of fact were mere recitations of the evidence. Petitioner relies primarily on Finding of Fact No. 15:

The petitioner performed the standard field sobriety tests on an impacted gravel pit on the side of the road. The petitioner was wearing Adidas navy blue thong flip flops. The petitioner does not recall the trooper asking if he had any problems with his legs or feet. The petitioner stated he has arthritis in his ankles and knees. The petitioner stated he has a herniated disk in his back as well as a ‘cage’ that was cemented in his spine with screws. The petitioner

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