The N.C. Court of Appeals threw up a roadblock this week for a Surry County woman who contends that the state Division of Motor Vehicles revoked her driver’s license illegally after her drunken-driving case was tossed out of court.
Myra Lynne Combs, who was stopped by a Mount Airy police officer in 2013 and accused of drunken driving, successfully persuaded a Surry County judge to suppress the evidence in her case. The traffic stop was unconstitutional, according to court records.
But a three-judge appeals court panel ruled unanimously that evidence collected in an illegal search or seizure can still be used in such civil proceedings as license revocation hearings.
State motor vehicle officers revoked Combs’ license after she refused to submit to a breath test, as state law allows.
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Combs contends that DMV officers should not be empowered to rely on evidence gathered from a stop that violated her constitutional rights.
“Combs’s argument poses a fair question: How can law enforcement use evidence that was suppressed because of a Fourth Amendment violation to later revoke her driver’s license?” Richard Dietz, an appeals court judge, stated in the ruling released this week. “The answer, according to several published decisions of this Court, is that the exclusionary rule – a bedrock principle of criminal law – does not apply to license revocation proceedings.”
The exclusionary rule prevents the government from using most evidence gathered in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
But across the country, there have been growing questions about evidence gathered from illegal searches used in immigration cases, asset forfeitures from drug and driving stops, and license revocations.
In the case decided by the N.C. Appeals Court this week, Mount Airy officer David Grubbs violated Combs’ Fourth Amendment rights when he approached her stopped SUV in a driveway and made her perform field sobriety tests without the necessary reasonable suspicion.
The officer had responded to an anonymous tip about a possible drunken driver in a Ford Explorer, allegedly weaving along U.S. 52 North. But Grubbs, according to court documents, did not witness erratic driving while following the Explorer.
Nevertheless, he pulled into the driveway behind her after she stopped there.
Grubbs reported that he detected a strong odor of alcohol when he approached Combs and noticed what he characterized as “bloodshot eyes.”
Combs told Grubbs that she had a beer earlier in the evening.
The officer asked her to step out of the SUV and perform several sobriety tests. He reported that she swayed while balancing during the one-leg test and used her arms to help stabilize herself before putting her foot down.
Grubbs then asked Combs to take a portable breath test, according to the court record, and she refused.
The officer then placed her under arrest and transported her to the police station, where she again refused to take a breath test.
After a Surry County judge dismissed her case, the state pressed ahead with license revocation proceedings. Combs challenged the process and persuaded a Surry County Superior Court judge that her rights were being further violated when DMV revoked her driving privileges.
DMV officials argued that the trial court was in error, and the three-judge appeals court panel agreed.
The appellate judges stated that Grubbs had “ample evidence” to believe that an “implied-consent offense occurred.”
By refusing to take the breath test, and by telling the officer she had a beer that evening, the judges said, Combs provided the DMV hearing officer with “reasonable grounds” to believe that Combs “was drunk.”
“The hearing officer found Officer Grubbs’ testimony credible and we are bound by that,” Dietz stated in the ruling.
But Dietz pointed out that similar cases had divided “sister states.” State Supreme Courts in Maine, Missouri and North Dakota have ruled that evidence not allowed in criminal cases could be used in civil proceedings.
The highest courts in Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont have ruled that evidence gathered from illegal searches may not be used in license-suspension proceedings.
Further consideration in North Carolina, Dietz pointed out, must take place in the N.C. Supreme Court.
Clark Fischer, the Winston-Salem attorney who represented Combs, said midweek that he wants to read the decision fully before commenting on next steps.