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Alma A. Elias-Cruz v. Idaho Department of Transportation

June 29, 2012


Appeal from the District Court of the Second Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Latah County. The Hon. John R. Stegner, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eismann, Justice.

2012 Opinion No. 99

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of the district court is reversed.

This is an appeal from a decision of a district court holding that in a hearing regarding an administrative license suspension pursuant to Idaho Code section 18-8002A, the hearing officer must consider the margin of error of the breath testing machine when determining whether the test results support suspension. We reverse the judgment of the district court.

I. Factual Background.

On October 21, 2010, at approximately 9:09 p.m., an Idaho State Trooper stopped a vehicle on U.S. Highway 95 for speeding. The driver of the vehicle was twenty-year-old Alma Elias-Cruz. When the trooper contacted the driver, he smelled the odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from inside the vehicle, and Ms. Elias-Cruz admitted to consuming alcohol prior to driving. The trooper had her perform field sobriety tests, and he concluded that she showed signs of having consumed alcohol. He could also smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from her while he was conducting the field sobriety tests. He arrested her for driving under the influence of alcohol and having an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. He then administered a breath test to her using a Lifeloc FC20, and it showed an alcohol concentration of 0.021 and 0.020.

Because Ms. Elias-Cruz was under twenty-one years of age, her driver's license could be administratively suspended for ninety days if she was driving with an alcohol concentration of at least 0.02. I.C. §§ 18-8002A(4)(a) & 18-8004(1)(d). The trooper seized Ms. Elias-Cruz's driver's license and gave her a notice of suspension pursuant to Idaho Code section 18-8002A(5). She timely requested an administrative hearing, which was held on December 9, 2010. At the hearing, she had the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the existence of one of the six statutory grounds for vacating the suspension of her license.*fn1 Ms. Elias-Cruz did not attempt to prove any of the statutory grounds. She presented the testimony of an expert witness who testified regarding the margin of error of the testing equipment. Based upon that testimony, Ms. Elias-Cruz argued that any suspension must be based upon her actual blood alcohol concentration rather than the alcohol concentration as shown by the test; that due to the testing equipment's margin of error, her actual blood alcohol content could have been below 0.02; and that the testing equipment had not been calibrated once a year as recommended by the manufacturer. The hearing officer rejected those arguments and sustained her suspension.

Ms. Elias-Cruz filed a petition for review with the district court pursuant to Idaho Code section 18-8002A(8). She argued to the district court: (a) that the hearing officer erred in failing to consider the testing equipment's margin of error; (b) that the hearing officer should have vacated her license suspension because the testing equipment had not been calibrated within one year as recommended by the manufacturer; and (c) that the verification test for the equipment conducted on October 22, 2010, produced only one sample rather than the two required by the Idaho State Police Standard Operating Procedures. The district court ruled sua sponte that her due process rights were violated by the hearing officer's rejection of the equipment's margin of error and that she had a statutory right to present such evidence. The court vacated the hearing officer's decision and ordered the matter remanded. The State then timely appealed.

II. Standard of Review.

"A party aggrieved by the decision of the hearing officer may seek judicial review of the decision in the manner provided for judicial review of final agency action provided in chapter 52, title 67, Idaho Code." I.C. § 18-8002A(8). When reviewing agency action on a petition for judicial review, the district court must affirm the agency unless it finds that the agency's findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are: "(a) in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions; (b) in excess of the statutory authority of the agency; (c) made upon unlawful procedure; (d) not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole; or (e) arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion." I.C. § 67-5279(3).

The district court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. I.C. § 67-5279(1). On an appeal from the district court, we review the decision of the district court to determine whether it correctly decided the issues presented to it. Wright v. Bd. of Psychological Examiners, 148 Idaho 542, 544-45, 224 P.3d 1131, 1133-34 (2010).

III. Did the District Court Err in Ruling that Due Process Requires Consideration of the Testing Equipment's Margin of Error?

The district court held that the hearing officer violated Elias-Cruz's right to due process of law by failing to take into account the margin of error of the Lifeloc FC20. In McDaniel v. State, Department of Transportation, 149 Idaho 643, 239 P.3d 36 (Ct. App. 2010), our Court of Appeals held, "Nowhere does I.C. § 18-8002A contain language that requires the hearing officer to take into account any inherent error within the breath test machine before a license can be suspended, it simply requires that the test results indicate a BAC in excess of the legal limit . . . ." Id. at 646, 239 P.3d at 39. The district court rejected the McDaniel opinion because "[t]he court focused only on the statutory interpretation without considering whether McDaniel's constitutional rights to due process were violated by that analysis." It then held: "Elias-Cruz's constitutional rights to due process were therefore violated by the Hearing Officer's wholesale rejection of the Lifeloc FC20's margin of error." In so holding, the district court erred. In 1970, the legislature enacted a statute creating a presumption of intoxication if the driver's blood alcohol content exceeded the specified level. The statute stated, "If there was at that time more than 0.10 per cent by weight of alcohol in the defendant's blood, it shall be presumed that the defendant was under the influence of intoxicating liquor." Ch. 9, § 2, 1970 Idaho Sess. Laws 15, 16 (codified as I.C. § 49-1102). In State v. Stutliff, 97 Idaho 523, 547 P.2d 1128 (1976), we addressed whether the State was required to provide expert testimony extrapolating the blood test results back to the time of the driving. Id. at 524, 547 P.2d at 1129. We noted that the blood alcohol content at the time of driving could be either higher or lower than it was at the time of testing, depending ...

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