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Bearinger v. Iowa Department of Transportation

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 14, 2014


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Robert B. Hanson, Judge. Petitioner appeals district court ruling affirming license revocation and rejecting prescription-drug defense in administrative proceeding.

Aaron D. Hamrock of McCarthy & Hamrock P.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Michelle R. Linkvis, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.


Page 105

WATERMAN, Justice.

This appeal requires us to decide whether the prescription-drug defense to the criminal charge of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, see Iowa Code § 321J.2(11) (2011), applies in administrative license revocation proceedings under Iowa Code sections 321J.12 through .13. Teresa K. Bearinger drove her car off the road and destroyed a brick mailbox. At the request of the investigating police officer, Bearinger gave a urine sample that tested positive for controlled substances--her prescription medications. Based on these test results, the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) revoked her license for 180 days. She contested her revocation. An administrative law judge found the facts to establish the prescription-drug defense, but concluded the defense did not apply in the administrative proceeding. The district court affirmed. We retained her appeal. For the reasons explained below, we hold the prescription-drug defense is available in license revocation proceedings. We therefore reverse her revocation.

I. Scope of Review.

" Iowa Code chapter 17A governs review of license revocation decisions under Iowa Code chapter 321J." Ludtke v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 646 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Iowa 2002); see also Iowa Code § 321J.14. " The district court acts in an appellate capacity to correct errors of law on the part of an agency . . . ." Ludtke, 646 N.W.2d at 64. " On appeal, we apply the standards of chapter 17A to determine whether the conclusions we reach are the same as those of the district court." Welch v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 801 N.W.2d 590, 594 (Iowa 2011). We are bound by an agency's factual findings if those findings are supported by " 'substantial evidence in the record made before the

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agency when the record is viewed as a whole.' " Ludtke, 646 N.W.2d at 65 (quoting Iowa Code § 17A.19(8)(f) (1999)). " Evidence is substantial when a reasonable person could accept it as adequate to reach the same findings." Id. " Because this is not an area where interpretation of the law has been clearly vested in the discretion of the agency, we need not give deference to the IDOT's interpretation . . . and are free to substitute our judgment de novo for the agency's interpretation." Welch, 801 N.W.2d at 594.

II. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On May 12, 2011, Teresa Bearinger was driving her car two blocks from her home in Urbandale, Iowa, while eating a nutritional power bar. She dropped the bar under her seat and reached down to find it, becoming distracted. She missed a curve, drove off the road, and collided with a brick mailbox. Her car continued into a yard, narrowly missing a large tree before veering back onto the road. The Urbandale police officer who responded to the accident, Shawn Popp, noted " the car was basically disabled due to the tire being torn off" and Bearinger " exploded the mailbox." Officer Popp found Bearinger outside her car, upset, shaking, and unsteady on her feet. Officer Popp noted that she was shaking " way beyond what . . . we normally would see in something like this."

Bearinger told Officer Popp she was taking neurological prescription medications and showed him a list of her medications. She explained to Officer Popp that she hadn't eaten much the previous day or that morning and that she thought one of her medications was clouding her mind. Officer Popp noted her eyes were watery. In light of all this, Officer Popp believed Bearinger may have been impaired. He asked Bearinger to go to the police department with him and she complied. At the station, Bearinger agreed to take a breath test and provide a urine sample. The breath test indicated she had no alcohol in her system, but the urine test revealed the presence of prescription medications.

As a result, on March 6, 2012, IDOT revoked Bearinger's license for 180 days. Bearinger appealed the revocation to an administrative law judge (ALJ). Bearinger asserted she was not in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2 (2011) because the prescription-drug defense under Iowa Code section 321J.2(11) applies. IDOT argued for revocation, asserting the prescription-drug defense applies only to a criminal charge and is unavailable in license revocation proceedings.

At the administrative hearing, Bearinger's physician, Lynn Struck, testified she had prescribed Bearinger the medications detected in Bearinger's urine. Dr. Struck testified she had not prohibited Bearinger from driving while taking the medications, though she had warned the medications may cause drowsiness. Bearinger testified she took her medications as instructed for a month preceding the accident and felt her ability to drive was not impaired.

Officer Popp also testified, recounting his interaction with Bearinger the day of the accident. He testified that Bearinger told him, " If she didn't like the effects of the one [medication], she would grab another one and take it instead." Officer Popp suggested Bearinger may have been self-medicating.

The ALJ believed Bearinger's testimony, concluding " Bearinger took her prescribed medication as prescribed." The ALJ therefore found, " based on the evidence presented in this proceeding, . . . the elements of the statutory ...

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