Aspen man’s license suspension upheld by Court of Appeals
November 13, 2013
The Colorado Court of Appeals recently upheld the suspension of a driver's license belonging to an Aspen native, but his attorney might ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider the case.
In a 2-1 ruling released Thursday, the appeals court agreed with a Pitkin County District Court decision affirming the state Department of Revenue's two-month suspension of a license belonging to James R. Haldeman, 23, who now lives in Boulder.
The ruling notes that Haldeman pleaded guilty to failing to report an accident after striking and damaging a fire hydrant near his house while driving in inclement weather. After the accident, which occurred nearly two years ago, he pulled his car into his driveway and did not report it to police, according to the appellate court ruling.
The Aspen Police Department issued a summons to Haldeman on the charge of failure to report an accident on Nov. 24, 2011. A plea arrangement was finalized in January 2012. Under terms of the deal in Pitkin County Court, Haldeman stated that he believed no points would be assessed against his license. However, the agreement contains his acknowledgment that a court is not bound by the suggested terms.
For Colorado drivers, convictions of traffic violations result in a certain number of points placed against a driving record. Twelve points or more within 12 consecutive months can result in a license suspension by the Division of Motor Vehicles, an office under the Revenue Department.
After Haldeman's plea was reported to the division, he was informed of a scheduled suspension hearing "due to accumulated points associated with traffic violations," the appellate court said. To no avail, he argued during the hearing that his plea agreement assessed no points against his license, and he also claimed that nothing in state law allowed for an assessment of points for failing to report an accident.
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The hearing officer's decision that Haldeman committed a 12-point offense was upheld by Pitkin County District Court Judge Gail Nichols. She ruled that it was undisputed that Haldeman pleaded guilty to the offense of "duty to report an accident" and that the offense falls "within the meaning of 'leaving a scene of an accident' which requires the imposition of 12 points."
There is no offense in Colorado motor-vehicle law expressly titled "leaving the scene of an accident," the appeals court said in its majority ruling. And the law assessing points for leaving the scene of an accident "does not cross-reference any other particular statutes" in the law.
However, the law does require that a driver involved in an accident resulting in property damage "immediately report the accident to authorities."
"Under this statute, the duty to remain at, or return to, the scene of an accident flows from the duty to immediately report an accident," the ruling states.
The appeals court agreed with the motor-vehicle division that "a violation of the duty to report" is included within the meaning of the term "leaving the scene of an accident," a 12-point offense.
As for the plea agreement, "no law requires a sentencing court, or in this case, an administrative agent acting in a judicial role, to accept a prosecutor's proposed penalty," the appellate court said.
The majority opinion was written by Judge Stephanie Dunn, with Judge Steve Bernard concurring. A dissenting opinion was written by Judge John Webb.
Webb wrote that the section of the law on "duty to report accidents" does not prohibit "leaving the scene of an accident." Instead, it commands a driver to "immediately return to and remain at the scene of an accident," but only if directed by police. While the law does authorize a point penalty for offenses requiring a driver to remain at an accident scene, the language of the law does not authorize any such penalty under the section of the law on "duty to report accidents."
Haldeman could not be reached for comment. His Aspen attorney, Gary Wright, said he and another lawyer might ask the state Supreme Court to weigh the case.
Wright suggested that it's fairly unusual to get a dissenting opinion in a Court of Appeals decision.
"That has encouraged me to look at filing a petition" to the higher court, he said. "I think the dissenting opinion is correct."
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