Drink with keysIn the North Carolina decision, Brower v. Killens, 122 N.C. App. 685, a driver who was accused of DWI, sought judicial review of revocation of his license by the DMV following arrest for driving while impaired.  The North Carolina Superior Court in Guilford County found that the DMV was collaterally estopped (the issue at hand was precluded) from re-litigating the determination of whether there was probable cause to arrest that had been made in the criminal case against the driver.  The DMV appealed, and the court of appeals held that because the DMV was in privity with the D.A., who prosecuted the criminal case for purposes of the probable cause determination, the collateral estoppel doctrine applied.

So, for the case at hand, Alexander Killens, the commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, appeals an order from the trial court finding the DMV was precluded from litigating the probable cause to arrest Stephen Brower again.  The circumstances surrounding the case are that on February 10, 1994 Brower was stopped by an officer while traveling on the Interstate 40 in Guilford County.  Thereafter, he was arrested for driving while impaired.  The officer then recorded that Brower refused breath analysis.

Brower lost his license as a result of the arrest; he then requested, and received, an administrative hearing to contest the automatic license revocation.  The revocation was upheld, and Brower thereafter instituted an action for de novo review (or “legal error” review).  At trial, Brower challenged his arrest for lack of probable cause, and after a full hearing, the trial court, concluded that the Officer had insufficient probable cause.  The trial court then suppressed the tainted evidence (the breathalyzer results) and granted a motion to dismiss.

Brower amended his complaint in the second case to assert collateral estoppel as an affirmative defense to the license revocation.  The trial court thereafter found that the DMV will not be permitted to re-litigate the issue of whether or not the officer had probable cause to arrest Brower for driving while impaired.  Finally, on appeal, the DMV contended that the trial court erred by: (1) concluding the DMV was collaterally estopped from re-litigating the probable cause issue; and (2) signing an invalid order.

The DMV argues that the Court’s decision in State v. O-Rourke, 114 N.C. App. 435, is dispositive.  In O’Rourke, the court considered whether the State was collaterally estopped from introducing evidence of the defendant’s refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test because the DMV had previously concluded defendant did not willfully refuse the test.  The factors the court focused on in this decision in determining whether the District Attorney, and the DMV were in privity (or parties in interest here) were: (1) that the criminal proceeding directed by the District Attorney and the civil licensing hearing protect different interests; and (2) the DA had no role in the administrative proceeding, and thus was not fully protected.

Subsequent to O’Rourke, the Supreme Court found that it was actually the people of North Carolina, rather than the DA’s, who are the real parties in interest in criminal proceedings. So, we remain bound.  Therefore, the District Attorney is not collaterally estopped from re-litigating issues previously determined in license revocation proceedings.

However, the case at hand, Brower, does not implicate the same concerns of non-representation because the DA’s office was involved from the inception of the criminal case against Brower.  So, here we are not bound by the shackles of O’Rourke. 

In State v. Lewis, the State of North Carolina, through its New Bern Child Support Agency, filed a civil proceeding against defendant seeking indemnification for public assistance it rendered two of the defendant’s minor children.  Defendant alleged he was not the father; however, was adjudicated the natural father in a prior criminal action.  Therefore, the defendant here was estopped from denying paternity.  In reaching its holding, the Lewis Court recognized the State instituted both the criminal and the civil proceedings; being more than a nominal party, pursuing the same interests in both cases.

In Killens, the state instituted both the criminal prosecution for driving while impaired and the civil license revocation hearing.  The State represented the same interest in both actions that of the citizens of North Carolina in maintaining safe roadways.  Further, the DA was also involved in the probable cause determination in this case.  Therefore, the court in the current case, Brower, concludes that the DMV in case two is in privity with the State in case one.  The holding of the trial court is affirmed; by collaterally estopping the DMV from re-litigating whether or not the Officer had probable cause to arrest Brower.  The issue is moot.

The crux of this case was that the DMV was collaterally estopped from re-litigating the issue because the DMV and the DA were in privity with each other; and that because the DA already litigated the issue of probable cause, the matter was closed.  DUI law is similar to the US Constitution, it is living and breathing.  With new decisions, come new laws by the legislature.  This is why it is so imperative to retain an attorney who keeps up to date on the evolving DUI law.

If you or someone close to you has been charged with DUI, call the law offices or Reeves, Aiken & Hightower, LLP.  For a consultation, call us at our Charlotte, North Carolina office at 704-499-9000.