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Titus v. State, Department of Administration, Division of Motor Vehicles

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 12, 2013

Thomas TITUS, Appellant,

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Robert John, Law Office of Robert John, Fairbanks, for Appellant.

Erling T. Johansen, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Before: FABE, Chief Justice, WINFREE, STOWERS, and MAASSEN, Justices.


WINFREE, Justice.


A motorcyclist was involved in a single-vehicle accident resulting in a cut on his head and minor damage to his motorcycle. The accident involved no other drivers, vehicles, or property. Because the motorcycle was not insured at the time of the accident, the State of Alaska, Department of Administration, Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspended the driver's license. The motorcyclist appealed the suspension to the superior court, arguing that the suspension violated his equal protection and due process rights under the Alaska Constitution and was precluded by the de minimis nature of the accident. The superior court rejected the motorcyclist's arguments and awarded attorney's fees to DMV. The motorcyclist appeals, raising the same substantive arguments and challenging the award of attorney's fees.

We conclude that the motorcyclist's constitutional and common law arguments do not compel reversal of the administrative suspension. However, we vacate the entry of attorney's fees and remand to the superior court to determine how the motorcyclist's constitutional challenges should impact the award.


A. Facts

In May 2008 Thomas Titus was riding his motorcycle with a group of riders. As the riders turned onto a main expressway from a side street, Titus looked back to make sure that others had made the turn. When Titus looked forward, he noticed the surrounding traffic was slowing down. He applied his brakes and his motorcycle fishtailed. Titus, who was not wearing a helmet, fell to the ground and his head hit the pavement. Only Titus was injured and only Titus's motorcycle was damaged; the accident involved no other drivers, vehicles, or property.

Titus was transported by ambulance to the local hospital. Titus suffered only a cut on his head, which the doctor sealed with four staples. Titus suffered no lasting injury and

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the cost of his treatment was paid through his health care coverage.

The accident bent the handlebar of Titus's motorcycle and scratched the exhaust pipe. Titus asserted that he could have bent the handlebar back into place himself, but chose to order and personally install a new one. Estimating the value of his labor at $20 an hour, Titus asserted the total value of the parts and labor required to repair the motorcycle was $216.95.

Titus told the responding officer that he had insurance coverage and later testified that he " thought for sure that [the motorcycle] was insured." But after the accident he called his insurance company and was told that although his wife's motorcycle recently had been added to their coverage, Titus's motorcycle had not. Titus asserted he " just didn't understand that, because [he had] been pretty good with [his] insurance, and [had] always paid everything on time."

Titus's motorcycle had been insured from 2004 to 2007; he removed the coverage at the end of the 2007 riding season. In 2008, about two weeks before the accident, the Tituses switched insurance companies. Titus's wife testified that she had called the new insurance company and added her motorcycle to the insurance plan; she attempted to add Titus's motorcycle to the plan but she could not find the vehicle identification number (VIN) for it. Titus had been out of town for work at the time, and when he returned home for a few days she told him in passing that he " needed to get his VIN number and to call in his bike to be insured." She asserted that she thought Titus " knew we needed to call the insurance company to supply the VIN but [she] also believe[d] he thought [she] had insured the bike."

Titus testified that he had to leave town shortly after the accident, did not have the opportunity to repair or ride the motorcycle during the following summer, and did not re-insure it.

B. Proceedings

1. Administrative hearing

Approximately three months after the accident, DMV informed Titus that his driver's license would be suspended for 90 days for failing to comply with proof-of-insurance laws.[1] DMV explained that it pursued suspension because Titus's vehicle was uninsured during a " collision which resulted in injury, death, or property damage ... exceeding $501.00," and because the " exceptions provided by Alaska Statute 28.22.041(h) do not apply." [2]

Titus holds a class A commercial driver's license and drives commercial and heavy equipment trucks; he asserted that if his license were suspended, he would be unable to work. Titus requested an administrative hearing, asserting that his livelihood depended upon his ...

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