Combs v. NC Division of Motor Vehicles – DUI License Revocation Upheld, Even as Criminal Case Tossed

Drunk driving is a major problem nationally, but especially here in North Carolina. Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates deaths related to drunk driving cost taxpayers nearly $2 billion each year, not to mention the personal emotional losses suffered by survivors and those injured.
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Still, it can be tough to prosecute a drunk driving case in criminal court, and that makes it easier for offenders to skate by with few consequences and likely re-offend – putting everyone else on the road at risk.

The burden of proof in a civil negligence lawsuit is lower than what it would be in a criminal case, but such lawsuits are only filed once someone has been seriously injured or killed. There is, however, one civil avenue that state officials have to pursue action against DUI violators, even if the criminal case isn’t successful. That’s license revocation.

It has to do with the fact that North Carolina adheres to a strict implied consent law. That means refusal to submit to officer-requested alcohol testing will result in an automatic one-year license suspension for any driver suspected of being under the influence – regardless of whether he or she is later convicted of that offense.

That was the case in Combs v. North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, recently before the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The appellate court noted from the very beginning that the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule doesn’t apply in civil proceedings – including license revocation hearings – even in cases when those proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature.

According to court records, defendant was the subject of an illegal traffic stop in 2013. Police stopped her vehicle without reasonable suspicion, thereby violating her Fourth Amendment rights.

At the time of the stop, the officer suspected the driver was impaired by alcohol. He smelled alcohol, noted her bloodshot eyes and reported she failed a field sobriety test. However, defendant refused to submit to a breath test, both at the stop and later while at the police station. She was arrested on a charge of driving while impaired.

However, because the officer had no legal right to stop her, any and all evidence collected in connection with her criminal prosecution was useless. The charges in the criminal case had to be dropped.

The civil case, however, continued on, with the Division of Motor Vehicles pressing ahead and revoking her driver’s license. She challenged the revocation, arguing the officer lacked reasonable grounds to believe she was impaired. The core of her argument is that because the traffic stop was unconstitutional, the state shouldn’t be allowed to use the evidence gathered at the traffic stop to revoke her driver’s license.

However, the appellate court ruled that while the exclusionary rule is a bedrock principle in the criminal justice system, it is not applicable in civil law, and therefore the evidence the officer collected in the stop could be used in the civil case. Therefore, her license suspension was upheld.

Our DUI injury lawyers know that unless the North Carolina Supreme Court issues a reversal on this matter, this is the standard courts in this state will follow on matters like this. The hope is that ultimately this will keep more drunk drivers off the road.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Combs v. North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, Feb. 3, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Vargas v. FMI, Inc. – Graves Amendment Protection Not Granted to Motor Carrier, Feb. 12, 2015, Charlotte DUI Accident Lawyer Blog

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