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Court of Appeals holds that deference is owed to traffic police

Md. high court says deference owed to traffic police

Administrative law judges must defer to a police officer’s reasonable belief that the motorist behind the steering wheel during a traffic stop was driving the car when the alleged violation occurred moments earlier, Maryland’s top court has unanimously held in ruling against a driver whose license was suspended for refusing to take a breath alcohol test.

The Court of Appeals said the administrative law judge, or ALJ, should not have accepted – over the officer’s testimony — motorist Ariel Medvedeff’s defense that her passenger Anthony Crany had been driving when the Ford pickup truck went through a stop sign in Westminster on Dec. 30, 2017.

Rather, the judge should have credited Carroll County Deputy Sheriff Kathleen Yox’s testimony that she approached the vehicle and found Medvedeff at the wheel smelling of alcohol, the high court stated.

In its decision this month, the Court of Appeals cited Section 16-205.1 of the Maryland Transportation Article, which requires ALJs  — in license suspension cases based on the driver’s refusal to take a breath test — to assess whether the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the licensee was driving or attempting to drive. The judge in this case failed to conduct the proper assessment in ruling against the Motor Vehicle Administration, the high court stated.

“The ALJ erred in effectively second guessing the professional judgment of the detaining officer, absent evidence that the officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe (Medvedeff) was driving under the influence or impaired by alcohol,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote in the court’s opinion.

“The issue of who was, in fact, driving the vehicle at the time of the traffic stop is irrelevant to the question of whether the officer reasonably believed or could have reasonably inferred (Medvedeff) was driving or attempting to drive from the surrounding circumstances, because (the MVA) need only prove that a reasonable officer could reach this conclusion,” Hotten added. “Even if Deputy Yox was uncertain regarding whether Mr. Crany or (Medvedeff) was driving at the time of the traffic violation, the applicable standard does not require certainty – it is enough that Deputy Yox could infer that (Medvedeff) was driving from her observations at the scene.”

Crany, who later said he had consumed a few drinks as well, told Yox that he was in fact the driver and that he and Medvedeff quickly changed seats after being stopped, according to the high court’s opinion. Crany’s statement was corroborated by Medvedeff, who had just failed a roadside sobriety test that Yox administered to her.

Yox did not believe Medvedeff and Crany — but the ALJ did in returning to Medvedeff the driver’s license that was suspended when she declined a breath alcohol test at a local police station.

A Carroll County Circuit Court judge upheld the ALJ’s decision, prompting the MVA’s successful appeal to the high court arguing that deference was owed to Yox.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Motor Vehicle Administration v. Ariel A. Medvedeff, No. 15 September Term 2019.

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