Court rejects DMV rule as unconstitutional, saying it deprived drivers of fair hearings

When a California motorist is arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and challenges the suspension of his driver’s license, the Department of Motor Vehicles appoints an officer to preside over the hearing – and appoints the same officer , under long-standing DMV rules, to argue for the license suspension.

This system, according to a state appeals court, violates the driver’s constitutional right to a fair and impartial hearing.

“The irreconcilable conflict between defending the agency on the one hand and being an unbiased decision maker on the other” creates “an unacceptable risk of bias,” the Los Angeles Second District Court of Appeals said. said friday.

Another DMV rule had allowed department heads to order a license suspension even if the hearing officer ruled in favor of the driver. A Los Angeles County judge overturned that rule in the pending case, and the DMV did not appeal.

The same judge upheld rules allowing a single officer to act as both DMV attorney and hearing officer during the license suspension hearing. The reversal of that ruling by the appeals court, if upheld, will affect thousands of hearings each year, said Bob Gerstein, attorney for the California DUI Lawyers Association, which filed the lawsuit.

Gerstein said issues at those hearings can include whether an officer had a legitimate basis to stop the vehicle and whether the breathalyzer equipment was properly calibrated. If the DMV determines that the driver’s blood alcohol level was at least 0.08%, the license is suspended until the driver’s criminal case is resolved, which can take several months. Similar procedures apply to drivers arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of narcotics.

Under DMV rules, Gerstein said, the only recourse for drivers wishing to dispute a proposed suspension was “to go before a hearing officer who was, at the same time, the judge between the DMV and the driver and, at the same time, arguing for the DMV against the driver.

Chris Orrock, a spokesperson for the DMV, said the department is reviewing the decision and declined to comment further. He could seek state Supreme Court review.

A 2005 California law prohibited all state agencies — except the DMV — from designating an employee to preside over a hearing if the same employee acted as an attorney or investigator in the same case.

Defending its rules, the DMV argued that there was no evidence of bias on the part of its hearing officers and noted that the department’s handbook directs such officers to be “fair and unbiased.” But the appeals court said the officers’ dual role stacked the deck against the driver.

The court cited the California Supreme Court‘s 2006 ruling that the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control violated state law by charging the attorney for a company whose beverage license was under review to prepare an investigation report and send it to the department while the decision was made. still waiting. The law requires “some internal separation between attorneys and decision makers to preserve neutrality,” the state high court said.

Or, as Judge Brian Currey said in Friday’s 3-0 decision, “An opponent should not be allowed to listen to the decision maker or the decision maker’s advisers privately.”

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @BobEgelko

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