The 2020 West Virginia legislative session ended in March just as COVID-19 started popping up in cities across the United States. Like you, we dove into the business of social distancing and learning how to conduct life via Zoom. A lot has been lost in the shuffle, but it’s important not to lose sight of the good accomplished in the final days of the session. One such example is the passage of Senate Bill 130. The bill, now signed into law, makes the decision to suspend a driver’s license for DUI part of the criminal ruling in magistrate court. Up to now, suspension of a driver’s license was handled outside of the criminal proceeding as an administrative process handled by the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
At face value, it may seem unimportant or even logical that the DMV would be responsible for suspending licenses in the case of a DUI charge, but there are several factors that have made this an ineffective and unfair process. Because the revocation of the driver’s license occurred outside of the court’s purview, defendants were required to go through two separate trials, one in front of the magistrate judge and a second in front of the OAH hearing examiner (who rarely possesses a legal degree). Many have argued this is double jeopardy.
Other inconsistencies between legal due process and the DMV’s administrative process stacked the deck against the defendant. Frequently, an individual has been found not guilty of DUI by a jury but the OAH hearing examiner still revokes his/her license despite the absence of a criminal charge. This inconsistency was exacerbated by the fact that an arresting officer submits evidence to the OAH as part of his/her required ancillary paperwork but may never appear for the hearing. When that occurs, no one is able question the validity of the evidence during the OAH hearing.
The way evidence is treated has varied widely between the court and the OAH. Within the legal system, a prosecutor carries the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; while the OAH decides whether the driver was DUI or not based on a preponderance of the evidence. In short, the previous code necessitated that a single defendant facing a single charge be tried twice on two different scales.
More egregious, OAH hearings can take upwards of six or seven years to be scheduled. Most people, especially in rural states like WV, cannot afford to go without a driver’s license. To avoid the exorbitant wait, defendants opt against a hearing and agree to have an ignition interlock device (“blow-and-go”) installed on their vehicles. The only route around the process has been to hire an attorney to fight the DMV. In the end, the roads were no safer and more money and time has been spent than necessary. And, those with less means or advocacy were the ones trapped in the bureaucratic catch-22.
For years, we have advocated for the amendment of this law. Our attorneys have offered expert opinion to the Senate Judiciary, House Judiciary and Joint Committees, and we are pleased this bill was passed with bipartisan sponsorship and support. The primary opposition to the legislation has been that passage of this law will “make it easier to drive drunk in West Virginia.” On the contrary, the criminal process will be quicker and ignition interlock devices will be installed sooner. In addition, defendants’ constitutional rights will be protected, all the rules of evidence will be in play, and the state will save money.