TOPEKA — Wellington resident Jason Camblin was behind the wheel of a vehicle that allegedly careened through city streets, struck a utility pole, slammed into a house and plowed through several yards before coming to a stop in a mud-saturated ditch.

He scrambled to the rear of the vehicle in an attempt to push it free as his wife, Shana Jarmer, slid behind the wheel and gunned the engine to add horsepower to the quest.

When law enforcement officers arrived at the Sumner County accident site, Camblin was vainly putting a shoulder into the escape plan while Jarmer was grinding tires deeper into the slop. Officers testified Jarmer’s effort produced no observable advance of the vehicle — a key factor in an unusual Kansas Supreme Court decision reversing a pair of lower court rulings that granted the administrative suspension of Jarmer’s driving license.

Camblin, who registered 0.22 on the breath-alcohol test, and Jarmer, who came in at 0.15 on the same test, were both arrested for driving under the influence, court records show. The legal limit in Kansas is 0.08. Appellate court documents indicated prosecutors proceeded with DUI charges given the couple’s reported level of intoxication and evidence they both spent time behind the wheel on Jan. 24, 2021.

Subsequently, the Kansas Department of Revenue notified Jarmer the state intended to suspend her driving privileges. She challenged that sanction at an administrative hearing, in Sumner County District Court and before the Kansas Court of Appeals. The suspension was upheld based on the notion Jarmer controlled the vehicle by holding the steering wheel, engaging the transmission, pressing the gas pedal and spinning the wheels.

Ryan Gering, a Wichita attorney representing Jarmer, told the Kansas Supreme Court during oral argument that state law made no distinction between successfully and unsuccessfully operating a vehicle when considering a criminal charge of DUI.

However, Gering said, Kansas law did establish in license suspension cases a bright-line division between an attempt to operate a vehicle and successful operation of a vehicle. The law was apparently structured so an intoxicated person who chose to sleep it off in the car would be charged with DUI, but not lose the ability to drive.

“The issue in this case … is whether my client, Miss Jarmer, was operating or whether she was merely attempting to operate her vehicle. There must be actual operation for there to be any suspension or restriction of their driving privileges,” Gering said.

Charles Bradley, an attorney arguing on behalf of the Department of Revenue, urged the Supreme Court to move the state away from a rigid interpretation of what was defined as vehicular movement. It should be the responsibility of trial courts to evaluate facts and sort out whether a vehicle was moving, he said.

“It needs to be reasonable,” Bradley said. “It needs to be based on the fact-finder. My request is reasonableness and logic.”

Bradley said most states didn’t distinguish between operation and attempted operation of a vehicle in these cases.

Supreme reversal


On Friday, a divided Kansas Supreme Court agreed with Jarmer and reversed the Department of Revenue’s decision to suspend her license. Even though she failed a breath-alcohol test and tried to drive the vehicle out of the ditch, the justices said, she failed to dislodge it and couldn’t be found to have operated the vehicle in a sense that jeopardized driving privileges.

The word “operate” was synonymous in state law with the word “drive,” which required that a vehicle move under the control of a driver, the Supreme Court opinion said. Circumstances in this case should have prevented the Department of Revenue from seizing Jarmer’s license, the opinion said.

Justice Evelyn Wilson wrote in the majority opinion that findings of the Department of Revenue, Sumner County District Court and the Kansas Court of Appeals were in conflict with the Supreme Court’s 2016 precedent in State v. Darrow and its 2002 decision in State v. Kendall. She said precedent dictated operation of a vehicle required actual movement when assessing administrative restrictions of a license.

“Because we see no reason to depart from that precedent,” Wilson wrote, “we reverse the suspension of Jarmer’s license.”

Wilson wrote the majority didn’t find persuasive the Court of Appeals’ belief Jarmer was “in actual physical control of the movements of the machinery of the vehicle and … had she succeeded in her efforts, she could have seriously jeopardized the public safety.”

The Supreme Court opinion says the justices recognized the intuitive appeal of the Court of Appeals’ effort to expand the definition of operating a vehicle in light of Jarmer’s overt effort to drive out of the mud. But the court was convinced not to depart from the idea vehicular movement, not physical control, distinguished operation of a vehicle from attempts to operate a vehicle, she said.

And, the dissent


Justice Caleb Stegall, in a dissent joined by Justice Melissa Standridge, said he disagreed with the way the Supreme Court majority applied court precedent and state law.

Stegall wrote that he would prefer the Supreme Court pronounce a broad legal definition of operating a vehicle and leave case-by-case application of that standard to juries or judges considering evidence at trial.

Stegall said no bill devised by the Legislature and signed into law by a governor could definitionally answer every situation created by motorists. He said the majority opinion defined movement of a vehicle in a way no reasonable person would recognize.

“I fail to understand how causing the actual movement of the mechanical systems of the drive train of the car, done with the intent to steer the vehicle out of the ditch, does not satisfy the Legislature’s intent behind the word ‘operate,'” Stegall wrote. “Today’s outcome falls far outside the plain meaning of the statute and produces what I believe to be an absurd result.”

“Is a drag racer doing a stationary burnout not ‘driving’ their car?” he asked. “On the other hand, what about a mechanic operating a vehicle’s drive train while the vehicle is on a lift? Or, a motorcycle being revved up to show off a new motor, but the transmission is disconnected?”