At this time of year, law enforcement is rightly concerned with enforcing laws against drinking and driving. Maryland law includes a requirement that a person arrested for driving or attempting to drive while intoxicated or impaired, after being given their rights, agree to submit to a breathalyzer test or face suspension of  driving privileges.

Maryland’s highest Court last week decided a case in which the driver and passenger allegedly tried to switch places, in a case called Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) v. Ariel Medvedeff.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that on the evening of December 30, sheriff’s deputies observed a pickup truck fail to stop at a stop sign. When they attempted to pull the driver over, the vehicle was driven forward and turned into a nearby shopping center. The deputy approached the vehicle and observed Medvedeff in the driver’s seat, and a male passenger seated behind her. After smelling alcohol on Medvedeff’s breath and person, she was asked to get out of the vehicle and submit to field sobriety tests and a preliminary breath test, which she failed.

Meanwhile, the passenger approached the other deputy and reported that he in fact had been driving, and that he and his friend had switched places. When the passenger also failed sobriety tests, they were both arrested and taken to the station. After being given her rights, Medvedeff refused to submit to a breathalyzer, and her license was confiscated. She challenged the automatic suspension for refusing the test. At a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, (ALJ) Medvedeff and her passenger both testified that they agreed to switch because the passenger was afraid a DWI arrest would affect his security clearance. The ALJ held that the officer lacked reasonable grounds to believe that Medvedeff was driving when she refused the test, and the Circuit Court agreed.

The MVA appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed. The appellate Court noted that in a hearing for license suspension for test refusal, the ALJ determines: 1) whether the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the licensee was driving or attempting to drive, 2) was there evidence of alcohol intoxication or impairment, 3) was the licensee properly advised of her rights, and 4) was there a refusal of the breathalyzer after the advice of rights. Here, the ALJ was held to have erroneously made a credibility determination of whether the licensee was in fact driving.

The issue, the Court said, was whether the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the licensee was driving or attempting to drive. Having observed the licensee shortly after observing the traffic offense sitting behind the wheel, who smelled of alcohol and then failed field sobriety tests, there was reasonable grounds to believe she was driving or attempting to drive.

Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.

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