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State v. Minior

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 11, 2018

State
v.
Benjamin D. Minior.

         Providence County Superior Court P2/14-3481A, William E. Carnes, Jr. Associate Justice

          For State: Aaron L. Weisman: Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Richard S. Humphrey, Esq. Allyson M. Quay, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Gilbert V. Indeglia, Associate Justice

         Today, we are called upon to embark on the "journey we reserve[d] for another day." State v. Pacheco, 161 A.3d 1166, 1177 (R.I. 2017). Less than a year ago in that case, we "deem[ed] it unnecessary to decide whether collateral estoppel is applicable to issues determined in the [Rhode Island] Traffic Tribunal when all of the elements of the doctrine are met." Id. With that issue once again before us, we conclude that the time has come to decide it.

         Benjamin D. Minior (Minior or defendant) was cited with the civil violation of reasonable and prudent speeds[1] in the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal (Traffic Tribunal) and charged criminally in Superior Court with the driving-related counts of driving under the influence, serious bodily injury resulting[2] and reckless driving.[3] Before a Superior Court magistrate, defendant sought to dismiss his criminal charges, arguing that the Traffic Tribunal magistrate determined that he was not operating the vehicle and thus the issue could not be relitigated based on collateral estoppel. The Superior Court magistrate granted the motion to dismiss and the state appealed. A Superior Court justice reversed the dismissal. On appeal, defendant argues that the trial justice erred in denying his motion to dismiss based on collateral estoppel. The state counters that the present appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss is not properly before us.

         For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The facts in this case are straightforward and largely undisputed. On February 17, 2014 at 1:24 a.m., the Town of Bristol (the town) police were dispatched to a motor vehicle accident near 85 Broad Common Road. The vehicle-a 2004 Volvo-had veered off the road and severed a telephone pole, then continued until it hit a tree approximately fifteen feet away. A front-seat passenger suffered injuries to his head and legs, while the suspected operator- identified by the passenger as Minior-had a head laceration. Minior was arrested and taken to Rhode Island Hospital on suspicion of driving under the influence, where a blood test revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.153 mg/dl. That night, Bristol police cited him with the civil violation of reasonable and prudent speeds. He was also issued a summons to appear at an arraignment for a driving under the influence, serious bodily injury resulting charge, to which he entered no plea and was released on bail.

         The defendant appeared before the Traffic Tribunal to answer his civil violation on April 28, 2014. There, Bristol Officer Kevin Kitchen, who was dispatched to the accident, testified as to his observations at the scene. After Officer Kitchen concluded his testimony, Bristol Officer Timothy Gallison, who was also dispatched to the scene, testified as well. Officer Gallison recalled that upon approaching the vehicle, he witnessed a male sitting in the driver's seat.

          After both officers testified, defendant's attorney moved to dismiss the violation. The defendant asserted that, based on a lack of evidence as to both the posted speed limit and defendant's operation of the vehicle, the town failed to satisfy the requisite clear and convincing standard. Significant to Minior's argument before us is the magistrate's admonition to one of the officers that "there was no testimony as to observation of the motor vehicle at the time of the accident, as to who was driving it. You're indicating and coming to the presumption as to who was operating the vehicle." In conclusion, the magistrate said "there was no observation of who was operating the vehicle * * *, so the [c]ourt finds that the [t]own has not sustained the violation for reasonable and prudent speed[s]."

         On December 5, 2014, the state filed a criminal information charging defendant with two driving-related counts: (1) driving under the influence, serious bodily injury resulting; and (2) reckless driving. On August 4, 2015, Minior moved pursuant to Rule 9.1 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure to dismiss the criminal charges, arguing that the Traffic Tribunal's dismissal collaterally estopped the criminal charges from proceeding. The motion to dismiss was heard by a Superior Court magistrate on September 14, 2015. The Superior Court magistrate granted the motion based primarily on a decision he had rendered in a previous case.

         Soon after, the state appealed the Superior Court magistrate's decision per G.L. 1956 § 8-2-11.1(d) and a Superior Court justice heard the matter on December 15, 2015. The justice reversed the Superior Court magistrate's decision, emphasizing the distinction between "what the Traffic Tribunal [magistrate] did and [what he] did not do when he rendered his decision." Continuing, she noted that "a careful review of the transcript" revealed that the Traffic Tribunal magistrate did not make a specific finding about whether defendant was operating the vehicle at the time of the accident. Instead, the Traffic Tribunal magistrate "merely found that the [t]own had not sustained the violation, " and did not decide whether defendant was operating the vehicle. "[The Traffic Tribunal magistrate] merely commented on the absence of evidence and found only that the [t]own had not sustained its burden." The justice ...


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