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Texas Department of Public Safety v. Arciniega

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

March 31, 2017


         On Appeal from the 1st Multicounty Court at Law Nolan County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2, 421

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



         The Texas Department of Public Safety appeals from the county court's order restoring Pedro Monroy Arciniega's driving privileges. In its order, the county court reversed an administrative law judge's decision that authorized the Department to suspend Arciniega'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 Arciniega. 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 Arciniega. The administrative law judge made the following finding on this element:

FINDING OF FACT 1: On July 19, 2014, Police Officer M. Campa, Sweetwater Police Department, at approximately 10:50 p.m., personally observed a motor vehicle, i.e., a white pickup truck being driven by Defendant north bound on Sam Houston, a public place in Sweetwater, Nolan County, Texas. Defendant's vehicle was approach-ing a stopped vehicle at a rate of speed that appeared to Campa to be dangerous. Defendant's vehicle did not brake until late, and had to maneuver to one side to avoid a collision. Campa made a stop of Defendant. On July 19, 2014, reasonable suspicion to stop or probable cause to arrest the Defendant existed.

         Accordingly, we must determine whether substantial evidence supports the administrative law judge's finding that reasonable suspicion existed for Officer Campa to stop Arciniega. 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. One of the three documents was the "Peace Officer's Sworn Report" prepared by Officer Campa. The opening paragraphs of his narrative stated as follows:

On July 19, 2014 at approximately 20:50 [hours] I Officer Campa was parked in front of the Mi Familia restaurant located on the 500 blk of Sam Houston Street running radar, and scanning the intersection for traffic violations.
I observed a white pickup traveling north on Sam Houston approaching the intersection behind a white car which had stopped at the stop sign on Sam Houston. The truck was traveling at a fast rate of speed, and did not appear to be slowing down when approaching the white car, at this point I believe the truck was going to strike the stopped car from the rear. The trucked then braked hard, and made an evasive move to the left of the white car, barely missing striking the car from behind.
I then initiated a traffic stop on the truck by activating my emergency overhead lights.

         These paragraphs of Officer Campa's narrative are the only portion of his report addressing ...

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