Most people do not realize how much power the California Department of Motor Vehicles has until they are forced to come in contact with them. Unfortunately this is usually as a result of being arrested for driving under the influence.
In California, the law allows the DMV to conduct their own administrative hearing to determine whether an individual was driving with a blood alcohol of .08 or higher, regardless of the outcome of any criminal proceedings. Because the DMV administrative hearing is not a criminal hearing, they are not held to the same standard and the individual being accused of DUI is not afforded the same constitutional protections as they are in a criminal proceeding.
The DMV hearing officers who conduct these administrative hearings are not lawyers or judges and are not required to have legal degrees. They act as both prosecutor and judge when conducting a hearing. They rely on the information they receive from the arresting agency and on whatever blood alcohol results the agency submits. Although the hearing officers should be concerned with whether or not the arresting officers followed proper procedures when stopping, detaining and arresting an individual, their conduct at the hearing seems to indicate that they are not. For example, if a police officer does not have reasonable cause to pull someone over, and it can be proven, the court case would have to be dismissed, regardless of the results of the blood alcohol level of the individual. The same should apply to the DMV Administrative Hearing but, as evidenced in a recent case in Orange County, the DMV continually ignores police officer errors. In this particular case, the police officer illegally obtained a test showing that the individual’s blood alcohol was over the legal limit and therefore, the case was thrown out. However, even in the face of a court ruling that the test was obtained illegally, the DMV chose to ignore this and suspended the individual’s license anyway.
The law giving the DMV the authority to suspend a person’s license if they are arrested for driving under the influence with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, has been in effect for 25 years. However, that law is now being challenged by The California DUI Lawyers Association, a nonprofit group. This nonprofit group has filed a lawsuit which basically contends that, allowing the DMV hearing officers to conduct these hearings as both the prosecutor and judge, violates constitutional rights. The lawsuit also alleges that the DMV employees, the hearing officers, are pressured by the DMV, into ruling against the driver rather than being fair and impartial.
As indicated above, the DMV hearing officers are expected to conduct the administrative hearings as both the prosecutor and the Judge. They must be fair and impartial as the “trier of fact” but at the same time, act as an advocate for the Department of Motor Vehicles, relying on the evidence presented to them when rendering their decision. However, often times the hearing officers rely on nothing more than the arresting officers report when making their decision. It seems clear that there is a conflict which needs to be corrected.
Related DMV Blog Posts: The DMV Suspension Of Your Driving Privilege