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Texas Department of Public Safety v. Ardoin

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

March 31, 2017

TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, Appellant
v.
SETH AARON ARDOIN, Appellee

         On Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 2 Taylor County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 5899

          Panel consists of: Wright, C.J., Willson, J., and Bailey, J.

          OPINION

          JOHN M. BAILEY JUSTICE

         The Texas Department of Public Safety appeals from the county court's judgment restoring Seth Aaron Ardoin's driving privileges. In its judgment, the county court reversed an administrative law judge's decision that authorized the Department to suspend Ardoin's driver's license based upon his refusal to submit a breath specimen after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. See Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 724.035 (West 2011). The county court found that the administrative law judge erroneously determined that reasonable suspicion supported the initial stop. In its sole issue, the Department asserts that the county court erred in holding that there was no reasonable suspicion to stop Ardoin. We reverse and render.

         When reviewing an administrative suspension, courts use a substantial evidence standard of review. Mireles v. Texas Dep't of Pub. Safety, 9 S.W.3d 128, 131 (Tex. 1999). A court applying the substantial evidence standard of review may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Id. The issue for the reviewing court is not whether the agency's decision was correct, but only whether the record demonstrates some reasonable basis for the agency's action. Id. Courts must affirm administrative findings in contested cases if there is more than a scintilla of evidence to support them. Id. An administrative decision may be sustained even if the evidence preponderates against it. Id.

         We review the trial court's decision de novo. Tex. Dep't of Pub. Safety v. Gonzales, 276 S.W.3d 88, 91 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2008, no pet.). This means that we independently assess the administrative law judge's decision under the substantial evidence standard of review. Id. Whether substantial evidence exists to support an administrative law judge's order is a question of law. Tex. Dep't of Pub. Safety v. Alford, 209 S.W.3d 101, 103 (Tex. 2006). The true test is not whether the agency reached the correct conclusion, but whether some reasonable basis exists in the record for the action taken by the agency. See Tex. Health Facilities Comm'n v. Charter Med.-Dallas, Inc., 665 S.W.2d 446, 452 (Tex. 1984). The reviewing court is not bound by the reasons given by an agency in its order, provided there is a valid basis in the record supporting the agency's action. See id.

         In an administrative license-suspension hearing, the Department bears the burden of proving several elements, the first of which is that "reasonable suspicion or probable cause existed to stop or arrest the person." Transp. § 724.042(1). The only contested element in this case is whether the arresting officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Ardoin. The administrative law judge made the following finding on this element:

         FINDINGS OF FACT NO. 1

On June 13, 2014, reasonable suspicion to stop Defendant or probable cause to arrest Defendant existed. Abilene, Texas Police Officer Andrew Mason observed the Defendant operating a black Ford pickup truck on S. Clack Street, a public roadway, in Abilene, Taylor County, Texas. Officer Mason observed Defendant striking the curb on two occasions.

         Accordingly, we must determine whether substantial evidence supports the administrative law judge's finding that reasonable suspicion existed for Officer Mason to stop Ardoin. In that respect, we stand in the same position as the county court, and we review the administrative law judge's order without deference to the county court's judgment. See Alford, 209 S.W.3d at 103.

         Our scope of review is confined to the administrative record. Dep't of Pub. Safety v. Hirschman, 169 S.W.3d 331, 336 (Tex. App.-Waco 2005, pet. denied); see Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 2001.175(e) (West 2016). The evidence in this administrative record is quite brief in that it only consists of three documents offered by the Department and a recording of the stop offered by Ardoin. One of the three documents was the "Peace Officer's Sworn Report" prepared by Officer Mason. The opening paragraph of his narrative stated as follows:

On 6/13/2014, I was working overtime routine patrol for F Company in District 5. At approximately 0029 hours I was driving behind a black 2000 Ford F-150 (TX LP . . .) in the 5500 block of S. Clack Street. I observed the vehicle strike the West curb in the 5500 block of S. Clack Street. I continued to follow the vehicle and observed the vehicle strike the West curb again in the 6300 block of S. Clack Street. I continued to follow the vehicle, who turned West on Antilley Road. I then activated my emergency lights due to the vehicle striking the West curb twice. I was also suspicious that the driver was intoxicated.

         This paragraph of Officer Mason's narrative is the only portion of his report addressing his basis for stopping Ardoin.

         The recording of the stop depicts Ardoin's vehicle from the rear as recorded from the dash of Officer Mason's patrol unit as it followed Ardoin. Officer Mason followed Ardoin for approximately one minute before activating the overhead lights on his patrol unit to pull Ardoin over. The parties dispute whether the recording depicts Ardoin striking the curb twice. As noted previously, the administrative law judge found that "Officer Mason observed Defendant striking the curb ...


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