Correct Injustice In W.Va.

Innocent until proven guilty isn’t a concept accepted by the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles. They seem to think that if you’re arrested for driving under the influence — even if you’re never convicted — they ought to suspend or revoke your driver’s license.

That may be coming to an end.

Some time ago, we published a story about an Ohio County man who had been arrested on a DUI charge, though he insists he wasn’t intoxicated. The charge was dismissed in magistrate court. He thought he was off the hook.

Wrong, the DMV notified him. His license had been suspended.

It happens more often than you might think, a lawyer told our reporter.

Now, I’m as angry as anyone at people who drive while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Too often, their car crashes kill people whose only offense was being on the road at the same time as the drunken drivers.

So, as I’ve written, people convicted of repeat DUI offenses ought to be thrown in jail for a long, long time.

But that’s the key: convicted. The DMV and its Office of Administrative Hearing don’t worry about a little technicality such as that.

A bill pending in the West Virginia Legislature could take the matter out of the DMV’s hands. It would eliminate the Office of Administrative Hearing. DUI cases would be handled solely by the courts, where innocent until proven guilty still means something.

Some lawmakers are promoting the bill, SB 212, as a cost-saving measure. Why does the state need to pay for an office to handle DUI cases when the courts are perfectly capable of doing that, the legislators ask.

But in reading SB 212, I saw some clues that make me think the sponsors have the same problem I do with the DMV.

Over and over again, the bill’s language uses the word “convicted” instead of “charged.”

In fact, one sentence in the bill makes part of its intent clear: The measure eliminates “all statutory provisions authorizing or requiring the Commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles to take administrative action upon an individual’s driver’s license on the basis of a driving under the influence arrest absent direction from court…”

As a matter of fact, the bill is quite detailed and specific. It is far from the free ride for drunken drivers that critics have claimed. SB 212 actually would provide a more severe mechanism of license suspensions and revocations for those convicted of DUI.

If you drive while under the influence, you’re not going to like SB 212. It appears to make it more, not less, likely that you’ll pay a stiff price for putting innocent lives at risk.

At the same time, the bill attempts to correct the injustice of allowing the DMV to punish people when the courts have decided that would not be appropriate.

So let’s hope SB 212 becomes law, to rectify an injustice that for a time, made the DMV judge, jury and executioner.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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