A California appellate court recently ruled that the method utilized by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to determine whether or not to suspend certain motorist's driver's licenses was unconstitutional. Specifically, the methods deployed by the state DMV in deciding whether to suspend the license of a motorist arrested for driving under the influence was determined to be a violation of due process.
Overview of How the California Department of Vehicles Handled Administrative Hearings for People Charged with a DUI
Anyone arrested for driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or beyond automatically loses his or her driver's license to the DMV for one year — but they have 10 days to request an administrative hearing. This is outside any criminal proceedings.
This administrative hearing was conducted before an officer. But here's the catch – that same officer was responsible for presenting the DMV's case for suspension and was empowered to act as both a prosecutor and judge. As you might imagine, motorists rarely, if ever, prevailed in these suspension hearings.
In addition, rulings rendered by hearing officers to “set aside” suspension orders were routinely reversed by Driver Safety Office managers who did not agree with the ruling, despite the fact that they did not participate in the actual hearing. To say the deck was stacked against your average motorist would be an understatement.
DUI defense lawyers in Contra Costa County and across the Golden State recognized the inherent conflict of interest in this structure. This is what spurred the California DUI Lawyers Association to file a lawsuit challenging the practice in court.
A three-member panel of the Second District Court of Appeal determined that the dual nature of the hearing officer/advocate created a blatant risk of bias that, as mentioned, violated due process.
Impact of the Appellate Court Decision
The appellate court's decision sent shockwaves through the California Department of Motor Vehicles and garnered national media attention. The court ordered that DMV management may no longer overrule hearing officer rulings and that hearing officers may not advocate on behalf of the DMV's interests while simultaneously playing fact-finding and decision making roles. After the decision was rendered, the California DMV postponed all administrative hearings so the state agency could assess a path forward.
The impact of this decision will be immediate and potentially long-lasting since tens of thousands of motorists are subjected to these administrative hearings each year.
“Combining the roles of advocate and adjudicator in a single person employed by the DMV violates due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and the California constitution,” the appellate court wrote in California DUI Lawyers Association v. California Department of Motor Vehicles (April 15, 2022 – Docket B305604).
It is worth noting that the California DMV is actually not precluded from utilizing a single hearing officer to both present the DMV's evidence and be the judge during a suspension hearing. However, the appellate court's decision requires the DMV to ensure the final decision maker remains neutral and is not an advocate for the DMV.
Have Questions? Contact an Experienced Contra Costa County Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have questions about this ruling or otherwise wish to consult with an experienced Contra Costa County DUI defense attorney, contact The Geller Firm today. Michael Geller and his legal team are available for virtual and in-person consultations. They proudly serve San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, San Rafael, Palo Alto, and the surrounding cities. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.