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Guilty Even If Not Proven So?

“How can they do that?” my friend used to ask me. “How can they set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner? Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?'”

It was all perfectly legal, I had to tell him. That didn’t make it right, I would add — but he knew that.

My friend passed away last year, of a heart attack. I wish he could have lived to see that sometimes, government does the right thing.

This year, perhaps.

Let me make one thing clear: I have no tolerance for people who drive while intoxicated. They put the rest of us at risk. If I had a dollar for every anti-DUI word I’ve ever written and had published, my last vacation would have been in Tahiti. If I had a hundred dollars for every time I’ve suggested judges throw the book at repeat DUI offenders, the trip would have been lengthened by a week.

But here’s the thing: The West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles can take your driver’s license if you have been charged with DUI, even if you haven’t been convicted. In fact, the DMV does that with some regularity.

It can get away with that because driving is a privilege, not a right, I explained to my friend. And it’s a DMV policy, not a law.

My friend lost his driver’s license because of that policy. He had been pulled over and ticketed for DUI, but never convicted. He told me medicine he took for a serious illness may have made him appear to be intoxicated, but he wasn’t. The case was dismissed.

But because he had been arrested, the DMV suspended, then revoked, his license. He tried to fight the agency, but lost.

I wrote about the situation a few years ago, suggesting that the Legislature should pass a law instructing the DMV to suspend and revoke licenses only when DUI convictions are on the books. It failed (passing one chamber of the Legislature, as I recall).

It’s back, maybe.

About a week ago, several legislators were kind enough to spend some time with the news media, explaining their agenda for the 60-day regular session.

One concern is giving people convicted of crimes, such as those involving illegal drugs, second chances, commented state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. Part of their strategy involves driver’s licenses revoked because of convictions. “People have to drive to work,” Hanshaw pointed out, and getting back on the right track after paying one’s debt to society includes being able to find a job.

“That’s a problem,” he said of judicial or administrative processes that keep people from getting driver’s licenses. Note the term “administrative processes” — such as the DMV’s on DUI arrests.

So I asked Hanshaw a specific question about whether people ought to lose licenses without being convicted of DUI. “That is one of the policy issues we would look at,” he said, with some emphasis.

Looking doesn’t mean acting, of course. But if people with drug convictions can get driver’s licenses back, why not those merely accused but never found guilty of DUI?

Here’s hoping the DMV isn’t able to block the change again. If lawmakers do push it through, I have a suggestion on naming the bill:

Let’s call it “Bernie’s Law.”

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

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