Port: License suspension process is deeply flawed
MINOT, N.D. — In North Dakota, if you are arrested for something like driving under the influence, the state initiates two separate legal proceedings against you.
One is the familiar criminal proceeding.
The other is a civil proceeding aimed at removing your driving privileges.
"It's a bulls**t process," a reader who is also a practicing defense attorney told me, referring to the latter.
What occasioned our conversation was a recent state Supreme Court decision that upheld a license suspension, overturning a lower court's ruling, despite the North Dakota Department of Transportation's use of a bogus signature to certify records.
That ruling is a topic for another column ( one I've already written ).
For this column, I want to talk about why my friend is driven to profanity by the state's administrative hearing process.
It's a bit of a kangaroo court.
The process is overseen by a hearing officer who is, by design, is tasked with fundamentally conflicting duties.
The officer is asked to be the prosecutor, as well as the judge and the jury.
Sometimes the officer can even act as a witness, too.
The hearings themselves usually take place before the criminal cases they're related to are resolved. Meaning the NDDOT can remove your driving privileges for a criminal charge you're acquitted of.
So much for being innocent until proven guilty.
Drilling down on that point, North Dakota's courts have held that the NDDOT can suspend your license even in cases where the police have violated your constitutional or statutory rights.
The cops could have made a bad stop, they could falsify evidence or improperly search you, and while you might find vindication in the criminal courts, the NDDOT can still take away your ability to drive legally.
I phrase it that way because many people drive even while under suspension. The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that as many as 75 percent of people with suspended licenses get behind the wheel anyway.
Those scofflaws may be driven by necessity. Even if your license is suspended, you still have to get to work. You still have to get your kids to school. You still need to visit the grocery store. Especially in places like North Dakota — home to a lot of long roads home, extreme weather and few workable choices for public transportation — driving is a must.
People driving under suspension aren't likely to be covered by insurance should they get into an accident.
That's a real risk for the general motoring public.
It may feel appropriate to suspend a license for a DUI conviction — I certainly feel that way — but if most aren't abiding by their suspensions, what are we accomplishing?
Setting aside the question of suspensions as good public policy, shouldn't the process be more closely tied to the criminal proceeding?
Do we need a separate administrative proceeding at all?
As it stands now, your license can be suspended as a result of the administrative hearing or the criminal case. Currently, that gives the state two bites at the apple when it comes to taking your license away.
What would be so bad about giving them just one, which requires an actual conviction before anyone gets punished?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.