Curb Discretion On DUI Cases

Being pulled over by a police officer who thinks you may have been driving while intoxicated can be bigger trouble than you may understand – even if the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream is below the legal limit. The West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles still may take your driver’s license.

That can happen if a law enforcement officer tests you, perhaps with a breath analyzer, and finds your blood alcohol content is below the .08 percent allowing him to give you a ticket. He still may send results of the analysis to the DMV, which can – and does – use them to suspend your license.

If you are cited by an officer, then later beat the charge in court, the DMV also may take your license.

As an attorney explains in a story on page one of today’s newspaper, about 95 percent of motorists who win DUI cases in court still have their licenses suspended.

In other words, the law, at least regarding driving under the influence, is not the law in West Virginia. Instead, to an extent, the law is what DMV officials say it is.

They can get away with suspending and revoking licenses because the courts view driving as a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege subject to the whims of DMV officials, who seem to be trying especially hard to safeguard West Virginians against drunken drivers.

That is a laudable goal – but most Mountain State residents probably assume it is the Legislature’s responsibility, in DUI laws, to define “drunken driver.” Again, the statute says .08 percent blood alcohol content or greater. Our reporter was told .05 readings can be submitted to the DMV, which can suspend licenses in such cases.

If drinking that much makes a driver a hazard to the public, legislators should alter the law to allow for arrests and convictions at .05 percent.

But the law on important issues – and being able to operate a vehicle legally is a very serious matter to many, including those who have to drive to work – is supposed to be made by the Legislature, not by agencies in the executive branch of government.

Lawmakers should take another look at the situation. Again, if a lower legal limit for DUI is appropriate, enact one. But the DMV should not have the discretion of taking driver’s licenses away from people because, in effect, officials at the agency have decided legislators set the limit too leniently.

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