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Md. top court: Refusing breath test can cause non-driver’s license suspension

Court of Appeals says issue is if officer reasonably believes person was driving

Md. top court: Refusing breath test can cause non-driver’s license suspension

Court of Appeals says issue is if officer reasonably believes person was driving

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Among the cases the Court of Appeals will consider in its new term, which begins Thursday: whether the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration violated a car owner’s constitutional right to free speech in recalling his vanity license plate ‘MIERDA,’ the Spanish word for ‘s–t.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)
The Courts of Appeal building in Annapolis.
(Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration can suspend the licenses of drivers who refuse to take alcohol breath tests even if they were neither actually driving nor attempting to drive the vehicles, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled Friday.

Under state law, a driver’s license may be suspended if the police officer reasonably believed the person declining the test was driving or attempting to drive while impaired, the Court of Appeals held.

In rendering its decision, the Court of Appeals overturned lower-court rulings that the MVA may suspend licenses of drivers only if it has been proven they were driving or attempting to drive under the influence before refusing an officer’s request to take the test.

The court cited Section 16-205.1(f)(7)(i) of the Transportation Article, which governs the refusal to take a breath test.

The section requires that the officer have “reasonable grounds for believing” that the licensee was driving or attempting to drive while impaired based on evidence of alcohol use. The officer must also advise the individual of the consequences of refusal.

“A determination of whether the individual actually drove (or attempted to drive) while impaired does not appear on that list,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the seven-member court. “In a test-refusal case, the MVA is not required to establish that the licensee was actually driving (or attempting to drive) while impaired. Rather, the statute requires …only that the MVA show by a preponderance of the evidence that the investigating officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the licensee was doing so.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which represented MVA, said in a statement that “we are very satisfied with the outcome of the cases as we believe the court’s rulings are consistent with the intent of the legislature and the long standing position of (the) Court of Appeals on issues involving drivers who refuse to submit to alcohol testing when properly requested to do so by law enforcement.”

Waiting for Uber

The court rendered its decision in reinstating the MVA’s suspension of Paul Styslinger’s license. The motor of Styslinger’s vehicle was running when Gaithersburg police officer Alex Pockett found Styslinger asleep and smelling of alcohol in the driver’s seat off of Washington Boulevard early one morning in March 2015. When Styslinger awoke, Pockett had him perform field sobriety tests, which the officer said he failed, the court’s opinion stated.

Pockett detained Styslinger and drove him to the police station for a blood alcohol concentration test, which he refused to take. Pockett then confiscated Styslinger’s license and issued him a temporary one pending disposition by the MVA.

At the administrative hearing, Styslinger conceded he had been drinking but said he was sleeping it off in his car with the motor on so he could have heat while waiting for the Uber car service to drive him home. Styslinger said he neither drove nor attempted to drive his car while impaired.

But the administrative law judge sided with Pockett, saying the officer had “reasonable grounds to believe” Styslinger was driving or attempting to drive while impaired based on the running motor and the smell of alcohol on his breath.

On appeal, the Montgomery County Circuit Court overruled the administrative law judge, saying the MVA had failed to prove that Styslinger had actually been driving or attempting to drive. The MVA then appealed to the high court, which agreed with the agency that the officer’s reasonable belief was all that needed to be shown.

Further consideration

In the same opinion, the Court of Appeals also returned for further consideration a Somerset County Circuit Court ruling that the MVA could not suspend Robert A. Krafft’s license because the agency had not shown he had actually driven or attempted to drive while under the influence.

In Krafft’s case, Maryland state trooper John Dize responded to a reported car crash in front of a home in Princess Anne in October 2015. Dize saw through an open door that Krafft, the vehicle’s owner and resident of the home, was “passed out on his couch,” according to the high court’s opinion.

The officer questioned Krafft, who could barely stand, had the smell of alcohol on his breath, slurred his words and had red and glassy eyes, the opinion stated.

When Krafft rejected Dize’s request that he take a breath test, the officer confiscated the man’s license.

Krafft argued at the administrative hearing that Dize had no reasonable grounds to believe he had been driving, as the officer had not seen him in the car. The administrative law judge and the Somerset County Circuit Court agreed, saying the MVA had failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Krafft had driven or attempted to drive while impaired.

But the Court of Appeals, in its decision Friday, returned the case to the ALJ to determine not if Krafft was actually driving or attempting to drive but if Dize reasonably believed that Krafft had driven or tried to drive while impaired.

Attorneys from Styslinger and Krafft did not return telephone messages seeking comment Monday.

Jeffrey L. Shelton, of Rowe Weinstein & Sohn PLLC in Rockville, represented Styslinger. Krafft was represented by M. Dean Jenkins of Ayres, Jenkins, Gordy & Almand P.A. in Ocean City.

The consolidated cases were Motor Vehicle Administration v. Paul McGuire Styslinger and Motor Vehicle Administration v. Robert Allen Krafft, Nos. 53 and 52 September Term 2016.

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