In early March 2020, West Virginia lawmakers passed Senate Bill 130. This new bill changes the way the state hears and tries cases of driving under the influence (DUI). Earlier this June, the law went into effect.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) spoke out against the new law. They claim that the new process eases punishments for drunk drivers in West Virginia. So, what did legislators change?
The differences between administrative and criminal hearings
When charged with a DUI, a person might go through two separate hearings. One is the criminal hearing that examines the details of the crime of driving under the influence. A court will assess damages (if any), consult with victims (if any) and commute a sentence fitting of the crime. The defendant has the right to legal counsel, and a judge will deliver a ruling. Criminal hearings usually take time to schedule, as prosecuting attorneys collect evidence and build arguments. By then, a person charged with a DUI will have completed their administrative hearing with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
An administrative hearing is much smaller. The DMV’s hearing officers examine the police report and results from breathalyzer tests, then issue a punishment based on a “preponderance of evidence.” Defendants have no rights to counsel, and the prosecutors bear no burden of proof. In West Virginia 94% of people charged with a DUI have administrative action taken against them, typically a license suspension.
SB130 removes the administrative hearing
The new law eliminates the administrative process entirely, grouping it in with the criminal hearing. Lawmakers claim this helps streamline the entire process by saving time, personnel and state funds. Scott Harris, MADD Director of State and Government Affairs, sees this as taking the law back to the 1940s when the administrative hearings became standard. He argues that these criminal courts only convict 40% of those charged with DUIs. Harris claims that courts will suspend fewer licenses, decreasing punitive measures for those who drink and drive.
Legal protections for victims of drunk drivers
Legal protections are now more important than ever. Victims of drunk drivers cannot rely on the DMV to ensure license suspension and must make their case in court. Hiring the services of a local attorney familiar with DUI law can help victims find justice.