Welcome to the maze that DUI lawyers across the country refer to as the local DMV. The motor vehicle departments in various states go by many names, but they all play a role in DWI cases.
Ok, what most people really think when it comes to dealing with the DMV is, “welcome to hell.” The historical literature indicates that there are several levels of hell, if if you include purgatury, then the situation is even more complex. Same with most DMVs.
At a recent Arizona DUI seminar, one of the best DUI lawyers in the state described the MVD as (to paraphrase):
“There are only three people living that actually know how the whole system works. No more than two of them are allowed to fly on the same airplane at the same time.”
Like many large buerocracies, the motor vehicle departments in most states are thinly organized chaos. It is not uncommon to call with a question and one answer. Call back and get another customer service person, and the answer may change within minutes, even though the question is identical.
To be fair to most DMV offices, they have a huge amount of information to manage. Although they are typically involved in the fallout from your DUI case, processing DWI license suspensions, doing suspension hearings and monitoring ignition interlock device orders really represents only a small fraction of what the average motor vehicle department office must do. In some states they are also in charge of gaming, voting, vehicle registration, business licenses and a number of other things. While your case may be the most important thing in your life, it is far from that for the average worker at the DMV.
One reality that is helpful for some DUI defendants to understand is that at most DMV offices, much of the process is automated. This means that once a human being enters the information about your DUI charge or conviction, the computer takes over and does the rest. This may mean adding points to your license, sending you a notice of suspension, adding a restriction to your license, making you do classes, or any number of other things.
Some of the automatic actions can be reversed. For example, if a DUI triggers a suspension of your license, it may be reversible if you have already had a license suspension for the same DUI. However, even if it is something that can be undone, the proper procedures must be followed. For this reason, it is very important not to rely on any general advice you get (from websites or non-lawyers) and to talk specifics with a local DUI lawyer who is familiar with navigating these types of issues.
DMV Office Structures:
While the organization of the department of motor vehicles varies from state to state, they typically have at least the following departments that interact with your DUI case:
- A license department, which oversees your basic driving privilege; and
- A hearing department.
The general license department doesn’t need much explaining. They are who you see when you get or renew your license. They are the people you talk to after waiting in line at the DMV. They are who you typically get when you call the customer service number.
The hearing department is different. Most DMVs have executive hearing officers or administrative law judges who make rulings and decisions about license issues in DUI cases. For example, if you refuse a chemical test under an implied consent law and you request a hearing, the administrative law judge (or ALJ) will decide whether you get to keep your driving privilege. Depending on the state, these judges may or may not have legal training.
In most states, decisions of DMV ALJs are reviewable on appeal to the next higher court. Depending on the state, the DMV judges may have to follow rules or evidence or criminal procedure. If you represent yourself in front of one, you are supposed to know these rules the same as a lawyer would.
Some states also have a driver improvement department. Regardless of the name, it is typically this department’s job to investigate drivers who they deem a higher risk than others, and make sure they are okay to drive with a minimum safety standard. In addition to DUI cases, this type of department may also investigate elderly drivers, drivers on certain classes of medications such as anti-seizure drugs, drivers with histories of mental illness or instability, and potentially other issues as well.
In some states, it is the driver improvement department that makes a decision about whether you have done enough education or treatment after a DUI conviction to allow you to drive again. They may review letters from treatment centers or counselors, and take into consideration your behavior and driving record between the time of your DUI arrest and the time you apply to have your license reinsated.
There are 50 states, each with their own licensing department. Make sure you check our state sections and talk with an attorney in your state to get exact and up to date information about the issues and potential pitfalls of dealing with the DMV in your case.