By David Daggett
On December 22, 2015, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion that gives prosecutors and judges another weapon in our arsenal to use against serious traffic offenders: Take away their privilege to drive.
In the joined cases of Meyer v. State and State v. Rivera, 2015 Md. LEXIS 869, No. 21 and No. 22, September Term, 2015, the Court of Appeals upheld the ability of trial court judges to forbid defendants from driving on Maryland roadways during their period of probation. While it may be small consolation to victims and family members of Auto Manslaughter and other serious traffic offenses, it is a significant decision nonetheless. Kudos to prosecutors from the Washington County and Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Offices (not to mention the trial court judges!)
In Maryland, points on an individual’s driving record take effect from the date of the offense, not the date of conviction, and “disappear” after two years. As such, in many serious traffic cases, by the time the case comes to trial, or the active period of incarceration has been served, the defendant is eligible to apply to have his or her driver’s license reinstated. This is so even in the case of offenders with multiple DUI convictions or driver’s involved in Automobile Manslaughter and DUI homicide cases. Up until now, whether or not the defendant could drive was strictly within the purview of the Motor Vehicle Administration.
While the reinstatement of a person’s license is still strictly up to the MVA, thanks to the following cases, prosecutors and judges now have a say in whether a person can actually drive a motor vehicle in Maryland. In other words, while the MVA may deem them worthy of reclaiming their license, the Courts can, in effect, say, “That’s fine. You may possess a license, but you still can’t drive in Maryland.”
Matthew Meyer – On October 23, 2002 in Washington County, Matthew Meyer was heading eastbound on Mount Aetna Road and entered the westbound lane of travel in order to pass the vehicle in front of him. He was traveling 75 m.p.h. in a posted 35 m.p.h. zone. While still traveling in the westbound lane, he struck an oncoming vehicle being driven by Gerald and Mary Dietrich. Meyer’s vehicle struck the Dietrich’s vehicle head-on, killing them both. Meyer eventually entered a nolo contendere plea to two counts of Automobile Manslaughter and received a sentence of 14 years, with seven years to serve and seven suspended. While he was given three years of unsupervised probation, based upon his terrible driving record and in the interest of public safety, the trial judge did impose the following special condition: Meyer would not be allowed to operate a motor vehicle in the State of Maryland during his three year period of probation.
In early October, 2008, Meyer was released from prison and began his probation period. On April 20, 2010, while still on probation, Meyer obtained a driver’s license from the MVA and shortly thereafter received a ticket for driving 84 m.p.h. in a 40 m.p.h. zone. With apologies to Jethro Tull, Mr. Meyer was apparently as “thick as a brick” and obviously had no intention of obeying the rules of the road. He was subsequently charged with violating his probation and at his subsequent hearing, was sentenced to serve an additional three and a half years in the Division of Corrections.
In April of 2014, Meyer filed a Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence, alleging that, under the holding of Sheppard v. State, 344 Md. 143, 685 A.2d 1176 (1996), the trial court’s no-driving condition was an illegal sentence because the court’s order encroached on the exclusive authority of the MVA, thus violating the separation of powers doctrine. Pending the appeal and prior to any proceedings in the Court of Special Appeals, the Court of Appeals granted certiorari, in order to enable it to hear the case in conjunction with the case of…
Helen Rivera – On June 3, 2013, an obviously agitated Ms. Rivera was driving northbound on Beach Drive in Montgomery County when she came upon a group of bicyclists who apparently weren’t going fast enough for her satisfaction. Upon passing them, she intentionally swerved her vehicle in their direction and yelled out her window, “There’s a bike path for people like you.” Although not elaborating on what she meant by, “people like you,” her vehicle physically pushed one rider off the roadway, causing it to wipe out and resulting in some relatively minor injuries to one of the bike riders. An obviously contrite Ms. Rivera then fled the scene.
A few months later she was indicted on a number of offenses, including second degree assault and failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in bodily injury. A jury convicted her of two counts of second degree assault and of fleeing the scene. Ms. Rivera received probation before judgment on the second degree assault charges, but not on the failing to remain at the scene of an accident. As a special condition of probation, Rivera was prohibited from driving a motor vehicle until either “February 27, 2015 or until the MVA permits you to drive, whichever is later in time.” The sentencing judge clarified this condition by stating, “If the MVA says you can drive tomorrow, you can’t drive for a year. If, after a year the MVA still has you suspended, you can’t drive.”
Rivera appealed the no-driving special condition, contending that it was an illegal sentence. Her case was originally overturned by the Court of Special Appeals, but the Court of Appeals eventually granted cert on both cases.
Court of Appeals Decision
Both Myers and Rivera relied on the case of Sheppard v. State, 344 Md. 143 (1996) in arguing that the no-driving condition was an illegal sentence and that the MVA has the sole authority to restrict driving privileges. They argued that the imposition of the no-driving condition was a violation of the separation of powers doctrine because the Judiciary has encroached on the powers of the MVA, an executive branch agency, which has the sole power to restrict driving privileges.
Sheppard, in a nutshell, relying upon separation of powers grounds, held that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to impose a no-driving condition because the General Assembly conferred the power to suspend and reinstate driving privileges to the MVA, an Executive branch administrative agency. The CoSA inferred that by enacting the Transportation Article, the legislature intended to preempt the Judiciary from doing just what the trial court had done in Sheppard. The CoSA explained that only the Executive branch, via the MVA, had the power to “govern driver’s license suspension, revocation and reinstatement,” thus the trial judge had violated the separation of powers doctrine. The Judiciary was not permitted to infringe on an area of law reserved for the Executive branch. Sheppard, 344 Md. @ 149, 154.
In Meyer/Rivera, the Court of Appeals then spent the bulk of the opinion explaining why they were going against stare decisis and overruling Sheppard, ultimately determining that the Judiciary has the discretion, where appropriate, to restrict a defendant’s standard of conduct, which includes prohibiting one’s ability to operate a motor vehicle as a condition of probation.
Beginning around page 27 of the Meyers/Rivera opinion, the Court of Appeals addressed the topic of probation and why it deemed it necessary to allow trial judges to fashion terms and conditions of probation that it believes to be proper. The Court noted that a sentencing judge is “guided by the objectives of sentencing – punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation – in fashioning reasonable conditions of probation.” @ p. 27 It also explained how a judge may have unique insight into a criminal defendant’s past that the MVA lacks because of its limited access to information and scope of responsibility.
The Court stressed that while the trial court has broad authority to impose conditions of probation, this power is not unfettered. For example, the conditions of probation must be reasonable and have a rational connection to the offense (emphasis added) and that the probation must also be constitutional. In other words, loss of driving privileges should probably be limited to those probationers involved in motor vehicle violations and who have demonstrated a lack of consideration for public safety by their driving actions.
Unfortunately, the Meyer/Rivera opinion referenced on a number of occasions the fact that these defendant’s had consented to the specific no-driving condition. That might indicate to the casual reader of the opinion that only by agreeing to that specific condition could it be binding on the probationer. Fortunately, the Court addressed the issue of consent at the end of the opinion. While the Court described probation as a consensual agreement between the trial court and a defendant, “the presence or absence of consent is not dispositive of the propriety of a condition of probation.” @ p. 39.
The Court, in effect, noted that every probation agreement between the trial court and a defendant that results in the defendant obtaining his freedom is a consensual agreement, and that by signing the Consent section, defendants agree to the terms of probation. A defendant isn’t in a position to dictate terms of probation to the court. Either he accepts probation or he doesn’t. In simple parlance, take it or leave it! The defendant, should he decline the offer of probation, can always be sentenced by the court to a greater period of incarceration in lieu of probation.
The Court of Appeals, by virtue of the Meyer/Rivera opinion, has granted prosecutors and judges one more arrow in our quiver to use against serious traffic offenders. It is important to note that the ability of the trial judge to order a no-drive condition is not just limited to drunk drivers. Neither Meyer nor Rivera were impaired by drugs or alcohol. This is a tool that should be requested when you have a defendant who has demonstrated anti-social driving behavior, either through a consistent pattern of bad driving or based upon a single incident, should it be outrageous enough.
In order to find the probationer to be in violation doesn’t even require a conviction of a new driving offense. The crux of the violation is that the defendant was actually driving, not that he committed a violation.
While not the most impactful case to come down from our appellate courts, it is still an important one. At the very least it might give victims and the general public a little more satisfaction and faith in the system…and make all of us just a little bit safer.