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Clinton v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

March 9, 2017

CLINTON
v.
THE STATE.

          ELLINGTON, P. J., BRANCH and MERCIER, JJ.

          BRANCH, JUDGE.

         On appeal from his conviction after a bench trial for habitually impaired driving and other crimes, Courtney Clinton argues that the evidence was insufficient as to the habitually impaired driving charge because he had not received sufficient notice of his status as a habitual violator. We agree and reverse.

         Where, as here, the facts at a bench trial are not in dispute, "this Court conducts a de novo review of the record in determining whether the trial court committed plain legal error." Greene County Bd. of Commissioners v. Higdon, 277 Ga.App. 350, 350 (626 S.E.2d 541) (2006) (citation and punctuation omitted). This record shows that on February 24, 2014, Clinton was driving a vehicle in Richmond County when he was stopped on suspicion of a window tint violation (OCGA § 40-8-73.1).[1] The window tint measured 21 percent light transmission, or eleven percent less than the statutory minimum. In addition to this window tint violation, Clinton was also charged with habitual impaired driving (OCGA § 40-5-58 (c) (2)), driving without registration (OCGA § 40-6-15), and driving without insurance (OCGA § 40-6-10).

         At a bench trial, Clinton stipulated guilt as to the window tint, registration and insurance violations. Clinton also stipulated to the facts underlying the habitual impaired driving charge, including his driving under the influence (DUI) on February 18, 2011, March 8, 2012, and September 15, 2012. These facts included that on September 17, 2012, Clinton signed an "official notice of revocation/suspension" advising him that his license was being revoked or suspended "upon conviction for" offenses including DUI and driving with a suspended license for a period "[to] be determined by [the Department] for the term authorized by law." The form did not indicate, however, that Clinton's license was being suspended because he was a habitual violator. The same form ordered Clinton to surrender his license, but Clinton had not brought it to court. On the same day, September 17, 2012, Clinton pled guilty to all three DUI charges. After the presentation of this stipulated evidence, Clinton argued that he was not guilty of the habitual impaired driving charge because he had not received notice of his status as a habitual violator. Although the State showed that the Georgia Department of Driver Services had attempted to notify Clinton of his status as a habitual violator in October 2012, Clinton produced a May 2014 letter from the Department showing that it had not so notified him.

         After hearing argument from both sides, the trial court accepted Clinton's stipulation of guilt as to the first three counts and also found him guilty of being a habitual impaired driver. Because the trial court postponed sentencing in the case, this Court dismissed Clinton's first direct appeal on the ground that he had not followed the interlocutory appeal procedures of OCGA § 5-6-34 (b). On remand, the trial court entered a sentence of three years on probation.

         On this appeal, Clinton argues that the evidence was insufficient as to his conviction as a habitual impaired driver because he was not given actual or legally sufficient notice of his status as a habitual violator. We agree.

         The Supreme Court of Georgia has recently repeated the guidelines for examining the meaning of a statute, as follows:

When we consider the meaning of a statute, we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would.

Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172-173 (1) (a) (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013) (citations and punctuation omitted). Thus "if a statutory text is clear and unambiguous, we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning is at an end." Id. at 173 (1) (a) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         The statute governing habitual violators of Georgia's driving laws is OCGA § 40-5-58, which provides in relevant part:

(a) As used in this Code section, "habitual violator" means any person who has been arrested and convicted within the United States three or more times within a five-year period of time, as measured from the dates of previous arrests for which convictions were obtained to the date of the most recent arrest for which a conviction was obtained, of [offenses including DUI].
(b)When the records of the department disclose that any person is a habitual violator as defined in subsection (a) of this Code section, the department shall forthwith notify such person that his or her driver's license has been revoked by operation of law and that it shall be unlawful for such habitual violator to operate a motor vehicle in this state unless otherwise provided in this Code section. Notice shall be given by certified mail or statutory overnight delivery, with return receipt requested; or, in lieu thereof, notice may be given by personal service upon such person.
(c)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2) of this subsection . . ., it shall be unlawful for any person to operate any motor vehicle in this state after such person has received notice that his or her driver's license has been revoked as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, if such person has not thereafter obtained a valid driver's license. Any person declared to be a habitual violator and whose driver's license has been revoked under this Code section and who is thereafter convicted of operating a motor vehicle before the department has issued such person a driver's license or before the expiration of five years from such revocation, whichever occurs first, shall be punished by a fine of not less than $750.00 or by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years, or both. Any person declared to be a habitual violator and whose driver's license ...

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