Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rehman v. DMV (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 20, 2009)

Feel pretty strongly about following the plain language of a statute? How do you think this one comes out:

Section 13353.2 of the Vehicle Code allows someone to have their license immediately suspended if they have a commercial license (e.g., are a truck driver) and have a blood alcohol content of 0.04 percent or more. But Section 13557 of that same Code requires evidence of a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more to sustain the suspension of a driver’s license under section 13353.2.

So take Atiqur Rehman's case, where he's driving a truck and gets busted at a scale on the I-5 with a .04 or .05. His license gets confiscated by the officer and immediately suspended, which is okay under 13353.2 (since he's got a .04), but then he requests a hearing at which he says that they're not allowed to take his license permanently since he didn't have a .08 as required by 13557.

So what do you do?

Here's two ways you can go. You can either do something like this:

(A) "The plain language of the statute is dispositive. The statute permits initial revocation of a license at a .04 blood alcohol statute but requires its reinstatement unless the driver had a blood alcohol content of .08. Courts are not free to rewrite the statute to achieve our own policy goals. If the Legislature wishes to revise the statute, this is their responsibility, not ours. Moreover, we note that the requirement in Section 13557 of a .08 blood alcohol content before license revocation is not necessarily irrational nor inconsistent with the .04 requirement contained in Section 13353.2. With respect to commercial licenses, the Legislature might have intended the lower 0.04 percent standard to apply only to the immediate suspension in effect between arrest and the outcome of the administrative hearing, but intended the higher 0.08 percent standard to apply to the continuation of the suspension after the administrative hearing, since the driver’s livelihood is directly affected by the suspension. It is also possible that the continued suspension of a commercial driver’s license may be adequately handled by other Vehicle Code provisions; in particular, Section 15300(a), which provides for a one-year suspension of a commercial driver’s
license upon conviction of driving a commercial motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.04 percent or more. Regardless, these are questions for the Legislature, not for the judiciary. Section 13557 expressly requires a .08 percent blood alcohol content, which was indisputably not present here. The revocation of Rehman's licence is accordingly reversed."

Or, in the alternative, you can do something like this:

(B) "The 'plain meaning' of a statute does not prohibit a court from determining whether the literal meaning of a statute comports with its purpose or whether such a construction of one provision is consistent with other provisions of the statute. The intent of a statute prevails over its words, and its words will, if possible, be read as to conform to the spirit of the act. This is one of the rare instances in which we must disregard the literal terms of a statute because they conflict with another statute and would compel an absurd result that the Legislature obviously did not intend. Section 13353.2 permits initial revocation of a commercial license based upon a .04 percent blood alcohol content. In practice, this revocation does not immediately suspend driving privileges, because the effective date of the suspension under the statute is either 30 days after the arresting officer or the department gives notice of the suspension or five days after the department gives written notice of its determination to sustain the suspension following the administrative hearing, and in the interim, the license holder continues to enjoy the privilege of driving (as Rehman did here) by virtue of a temporary license. Given this statutory scheme, the Legislature reasonably could not have contemplated using different levels of blood alcohol content for different parts of the suspension. We are therefore left with conflicting provisions that apply a higher blood alcohol content standard in the review of an order of suspension issued based on a lower blood alcohol content standard, which would lead to the absurd result of issuing orders of suspension that could never be effective and thus render Section 13353.2 nugatory in those cases in which the driver has a blood alcohol content of between .04 and .08 percent. Judicial recognition of what appears to be a legislative drafting oversight would conflict with the manifest structure and intent of the statute and lead to absurd results; accordingly, because Rehman does not dispute that he had a blood alcohol content of at least .04 percent, we affirm the revocation of his license."

Which one of these positions do you find more persuasive? (Here's Justice Robie's view, which I've lightly edited in either (A) or (B) above.)