The DMV's DUI License Suspension Hearing

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The in-person DUI license suspension hearing will usually be held in a small office room at one of the Driver Safety field offices. The hearing officer will sit at a desk; counsel, the client (if present) and any witness will sit at chairs facing the desk. A tape recorder will be present on the desk.

The hearing officer is, of course, an employee of the department—with little or no legal training. The most critical characteristic of this individual, however, is that the hearing officer wears two hats: both prosecutor and judge. The hearing officer will present the department's case, conduct direct examination of any department witnesses, and cross-examine the DUI client and defense witnesses. The hearing officer will also rule on all objections and determine the admissibility of all evidence. After the hearing officer has finished doing his or her best to sustain the license suspension, the officer will then decide whether he or she wins or you win. This dual role has been upheld in the administrative context.

Not only are DMV hearing officers permitted to act in the dual capacity of prosecutor and judge, but they are apparently vested with the inherent expertise as well. In Vinson v. Snyder 75 Cal.App.4th 182, 89 Cal.Rptr.2d 44 (5th Dist.1999), the driver appealed a suspension on the grounds that the only evidence of a prior conviction consisted of a computer printout—one "interpreted" by the hearing officer, without any showing of expertise, and offered/accepted by him as the sole evidence of that prior. The court simply referred to Gov C § 11425.50(c), which provides that "The presiding officer's experience, technical competence and specialized knowledge may be used in evaluating evidence"—and that the "statute does not require the hearing officer to document his or her expertise in reading departmental documents either orally or in writing." The court concluded that, "Adoption of such a requirement would add a time-consuming and essentially meaningless hoop through which a hearing officer must jump before he or she can render a decision."

Due process in California concerning DUI law and the DMV, apparently, centers upon a DMV employee who acts as prosecutor, judge and, now, expert-at-large.

As with judges, the quality and attitudes of hearing officers vary widely. Thus, counsel should be aware of a little-used provision for exercising a challenge for cause against any hearing officer:

Any party may request the disqualification of any administrative law judge or agency member by filing an affidavit, prior to the taking of evidence at a hearing, stating with particularity the grounds upon which it is claimed that a fair and impartial hearing cannot be accorded, [Gov C § 11512(c)].

Although that statute permits the actual hearing officer being challenged to decide whether grounds exist, the department has adopted a policy that a fellow worker at the Driver Safety office should determine the issue.

Thus, clearly, the deck is stacked; there is little chance of a fair and impartial hearing. The primary (and unstated) purpose of the hearing is to sustain the suspension. Nevertheless, an experienced DUI defense attorney has a good chance of winning reinstatement of the license. Furthermore, armed with a tape recording of the hearing, good DUI lawyers have the ammunition with which to (1) file a writ with the superior court and (2) impeach the officer as witness at trial.

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