Tuesday, August 3, 2010

White v. Director of Revenue[1]

Opinion issued August 3, 2010
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri found that the record supported the trial court’s conclusion that the arresting police officer lacked probable cause to arrest Mr. Adam White for driving while intoxicated. The contested issue of probable cause is viewed in the light most favorable to the judgment. Since the government did not request written findings at trial, the trial court could have disbelieved the director of revenue’s (
director) evidence. Therefore, the trial court’s judgment was not against the weight of the evidence.

I. Facts and Holding

On September 20, 2007, Mr. White’s vehicle was pulled over by a sergeant of the Missouri Highway Patrol for failing to signal when turning.[2] After Mr. White pulled over, the sergeant “noticed a strong odor of alcohol coming from Mr. White” and the presence of empty beer cans in the vehicle.[3]

The sergeant then subjected Mr. White to “field sobriety tests.”[4] Mr. White blew into the sergeant’s breathalyzer and tested positive for alcohol consumption.[5] Additionally, he “exhibited five of six clues indicating intoxication during the horizontal gaze nystagmus test.”[6] Mr. White failed the walk-and-turn test, and the sergeant testified that Mr. White was swaying and had bloodshot eyes.[7] Based on the sergeant’s “experience, training, and observations of Mr. White’s performance of the field sobriety tests,” the sergeant arrested Mr. White for driving while intoxicated.[8]

On cross-examination, the sergeant testified that Mr. White drove over the speed limit while passing him and failed to signal when turning.[9] However, Mr. White was not weaving in the lanes or otherwise driving erratically.[10] He did not stumble out of his vehicle when stopped, and the sergeant did not detect any odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle.[11] The sergeant originally stated that a strong odor of alcohol was coming from Mr. White; however, the sergeant later admitted that, in his written alcohol influence report, he wrote that there was a moderate odor of alcohol coming from Mr. White.[12]

The sergeant also “reluctantly acknowledged that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that a person not face the roadway” when undergoing the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, but the sergeant could not remember if Mr. White was facing the roadway during the test.[13] In addition, the sergeant’s answer to a question about his instructions for the one-leg-stand test was different from his direct testimony.[14]

The sergeant’s alcohol influence report was admitted into evidence after he testified.[15] During direct testimony, the sergeant said “his attention was drawn to Mr. White because he was speeding.”[16] However, in the sergeant’s written report, he noted that “Mr. White’s vehicle ‘slowly passed’ his vehicle.”[17] After the director of revenue finished presenting evidence for the state, Mr. White elected not to present any evidence.[18] The trial court ordered the director of revenue to reinstate Mr. White’s driver’s license, which the director appealed.[19]

Mr. White contested whether the sergeant had probable cause to arrest him for an alcohol-related offense.[20] According to the trial court, the director did not prove that the officer had probable cause.[21] On appeal, the director challenged “both the factual and legal determinations of the trial court regarding probable cause.”[22]

On appeal, the director argued that “a prudent, cautious, and trained officer would have probable cause to believe that Mr. White was driving while intoxicated” and, therefore, “the trial court’s judgment [was] against the weight of the evidence.”[23] Since the trial court did not make any findings of fact on the credibility of the officer and the director’s evidence was uncontroverted, the director argued that the Supreme Court of Missouri owed no deference to the trial court’s factual determinations.[24]

II. Legal Background

“Section 302.535 governs judicial review of an administrative suspension or revocation of a person’s license” when it is based on probable cause to believe that the person’s blood alcohol content was at least .08 percent.[25] Subsection (1) permits a person who loses his license under the statute to “request a trial de novo in the circuit court.”[26] The legislature requires the trial to be conducted according to the Missouri rules of civil procedure, and the burden of proof is placed on the director.[27] When a party whose claim was denied has the burden of proof, “the trier of fact has the right to believe or disbelieve that party’s uncontradicted or uncontroverted evidence.”[28] In license revocation cases, pursuant to Rule 73.01(c) of the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure, a trial court must make written findings only when one of the parties requests the court to do so.[29] If a court does not make written findings, the evidence is considered “in the light most favorable to judgment.”[30]

The director cited to prior cases where Missouri courts did not specifically follow the procedures set forth in the statute.[31] Berry v. Director of Revenue and Reinert v. Director of Revenue, two cases from the Supreme Court of Missouri, were interpreted by the courts of appeals to hold that less deference should be given by appellate courts to an assessment of the evidence made by a trial court.[32] The courts interpreted Reinert to hold that when there is uncontroverted evidence supporting revocation and the “trial court has not specifically found the director’s witness incredible, appellate courts will not presume that the trial judge found a lack of credibility and will not affirm on that basis.”[33] ”Uncontroverted evidence” was used to describe situations where a driver failed to present evidence contradicting the director’s evidence.[34] Consequently, an appellate court could only affirm the reinstatement of driving privileges, when the director’s evidence was uncontroverted, if the trial court made a written finding that a witness lacked credibility.[35] The Supreme Court of Missouri eventually adopted this view.[36]

In Verdoorn v. Director of Revenue, the Supreme Court of Missouri presumed the director’s uncontroverted evidence to be valid and required the driver to rebut the presumption.[37] The Court assigned the burden of producing evidence to the driver and stated that the driver’s “‘rebuttal evidence should challenge the presumption of validity established by the director’s prima facie case.’”[38] However, in the case at hand, the court noted that section 302.535 does not presume that the director’s evidence establishing a prima facie case is true nor does the driver bear the burden to rebut such a presumption.[39] Here, the court said that Verdoorn’s holding is in conflict with section 302.535.[40]

In Guhr v. Director of Revenue, the Supreme Court of Missouri said that the trier of fact is allowed to disbelieve evidence, even uncontradicted evidence.[41] In addition, the court also held that deference is due to a trial court’s assessment of the evidence when the facts are contested.[42] However, no deference is due when the evidence is uncontested because the “issue is legal and there is no finding of fact to which to defer.”[43]

In the present case, the court found that the previously mentioned cases “fail to follow the legislative mandate of section 302 .535.1 to place the burden of proof, including the burden of production of evidence, on the director and to apply the rules of civil procedure.”[44] Accordingly, those cases were overruled to the extent that courts interpreted them to ”create a presumption of validity of the director’s evidence, to place a burden on the driver to produce evidence that controverts or contradicts the director’s evidence,” or to require written factual findings under section 302.535.[45]

A reviewing court defers to the trial court’s assessment of contested evidence.[46] However, no deference is given to the trial court when the evidence is uncontested.[47] Evidence is uncontested when the issue before the court involves only stipulated facts, and there is no issue before the court that involves contested testimony.[48] Additionally, evidence is uncontested when a party admits the basic facts of the opposing party’s case.[49]

When evidence is contested by a factual dispute, the Supreme Court of Missouri defers to the trial court because a trial court is in a better position to judge issues of witness credibility.[50] The duty of the appellate court is to determine whether the trial court’s judgment is supported by substantial evidence, “whether the judgment is against the weight of the evidence,” or “whether the trial court erroneously declared or misapplied the law.”[51] The Supreme Court of Missouri reviews “probable cause determinations de novo under an abuse of discretion standard.”[52]

Inconsistencies in the sergeant’s testimony were pointed out by Mr. White’s cross-examination of the sergeant, which undermined the sergeant’s testimony and the information in the written report.[53] As a result, the director’s evidence was contested, and “the trial court was free to accept or reject any or all of the sergeant’s testimony regarding probable cause.”[54] The Supreme Court of Missouri found that the record supported “the trial court’s conclusion that the sergeant lacked probable cause to arrest Mr. White for violating an alcohol-related offense.”[55] “Therefore, the trial court’s judgment was not against the weight of the evidence.”[56]

III. Comment

The Supreme Court of Missouri more closely adhered to the statutory language of section 302.535 in White than it had in previous cases.[57] The conflicting precedent cited by the court shows that the court has had difficulty in applying this statute for the past decade. This may be due to the fact that the statute is silent regarding the appropriate level of deference given to a trial court’s factual determinations in license revocation cases.[58] However, this case certainly clarifies the issue. When the evidence is contested, a trial court’s determination of the facts is given deference. When the evidence is uncontested, such a determination receives no deference. The difficulty lies in determining whether evidence is contested or uncontested. In White, the driver did not present any evidence at trial, yet the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the evidence was contested because the cross-examination of the sergeant pointed out inconsistencies in his testimony.[59] Therein lies the difference between uncontroverted and uncontested evidence. The director’s evidence can be uncontroverted, yet contested. Therefore, it made sense for the court to abandon Berry and Reinert.[60]

-Drew Weber

[1] No. SC 90400, 2010 WL 3269232 (Mo. 2010) (en banc).
[2] Id. at *1.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at *2.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *8.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at *3.
[24] Id.
[25] Id. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 302.535 (2000).
“1. Any person aggrieved by a decision of the department may file a petition for trial de novo by the circuit court. The burden of proof shall be on the state to adduce the evidence. Such trial shall be conducted pursuant to the Missouri rules of civil procedure and not as an appeal of an administrative decision pursuant to chapter 536, RSMo. The petition shall be filed in the circuit court of the county where the arrest occurred. The case shall be decided by the judge sitting without a jury. Until January 1, 2002, the presiding judge of the circuit court may assign a traffic judge, pursuant to section 479.500, RSMo 1994, a circuit judge or an associate circuit judge to hear such petition.”
[26] White, 2010 WL 3269232 at *3.
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at *4 (citing Bakelite Co. v. Miller, 372 S.W.2d 867, 871 (Mo. 1963)).
[29] Id.
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id. (citing Berry v. Dir. of Revenue, 885 S.W.2d 326 (Mo. 1994) (en banc); Reinert v. Dir. of Revenue, 894 S.W.2d 162 (Mo. 1995) (en banc)).
[33] Id. See Mathews v. Dir. of Revenue, 8 S.W.3d 237, 238 (Mo. App. 1999); Sitzes v. Dir. of Revenue, 928 S.W.2d 3, 6 (Mo. App. 1996).
[34] White, 2010 WL 3269232 at *5.
[35] Id.
[36] Id. (citing Brown v. Dir. of Revenue, 85 S.W.3d 1, 7 (Mo. 2002) (en banc)).
[37] Id. (citing Verdoorn v. Dir. of Revenue, 119 S.W.3d 543, 546 (Mo. 2003) (en banc)).
[38] Id. (quoting Verdoorn, 119 S.W.3d at 546 (emphasis in original)).
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id. (citing Guhr v. Dir. of Revenue, 228 S.W.3d 581, 585 (Mo. 2007) (en banc)).
[42] Id.
[43] Id.
[44] Id. at *6.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Id. at *7.
[48] Id.
[49] Id.
[50] Id.
[51] Id.
[52] Id. at *9.
[53] Id. at *10.
[54] Id.
[55] Id.
[56] Id. Lastly, Chief Justice Price concurred in the result but declined to join the majority in overruling the established precedent discussed in the case. Id. at *11.
[57] See id.
[58] See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 302.535 (2000).
[59] White, 2010 WL 3269232 at *10.
[60] Id. at *6.