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Senate passes bill to cut DMV appeals office over objections

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to eliminate the Division of Motor Vehicles’ Office of Administrative Appeals (SB 212) advanced from the Senate Monday on a 27-7 vote, over objections that it could allow drunk drivers to keep their driver’s licenses.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, lead sponsor of the bill, argued that the office, which conducts license suspension hearings in DUI cases, is duplicative and inefficient.

“The evidence is pretty overwhelming the Office of Administrative Hearings has failed to carry out its duties,” Trump said, contending that some drivers have license suspension hearings delayed for four or five years after the DUI arrest.

Eliminating the office would also save nearly $2 million, Trump said, adding, “This is a smaller government bill.”

However, Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, said of the bill, “I am not in favor of anything that would cause DUI deaths.”

Miller said drunk driving fatalities in the state have dropped considerably from more than 240 a year when the DMV administrative hearings were enacted, to 65 last year.

“Let’s fix it and make it right, but let’s not make the situation worse,” he said of addressing backlogs with administrative hearings. “Let’s not make it worse for the family that loses a loved one.”

Proponents of the administrative hearing process note that it has the ability to suspend licenses of people arrested for DUI, even in cases where criminal charges are dismissed for technical reasons.

Under the bill, magistrates or circuit court judges would suspend licenses on DUI charges.

Trump argued, however, that state DUI traffic fatalities have decreased for a number of reasons, including lowering the blood alcohol content for DUI from 0.1 to 0.08, creating the charge of aggravated DUI for BAC of 0.15 or higher, raising the drinking age to 21, and the inception of interlock devices for drivers convicted of DUI.

The bill goes to the House of Delegates. Sens. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne; Miller; Richard Ojeda, D-Logan; Roman Prezioso, D-Marion; Mike Romano, D-Harrison; John Unger, D-Berkeley; and Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, voted no.

Also during Monday’s floor session, Woelfel urged the Senate to give consideration to legislation to legalize medical marijuana (SB 386).

“It’s time to have the discussion, whether you agree or disagree,” he said.

Also Monday, tensions between the Republican majority and Democrat minority in the Senate again flared, when some Democrat senators walked out of the afternoon Judiciary Committee meeting after a bill (HB 2678) they had helped to defeat on Saturday was abruptly reconsidered and passed over their objections.

“The reality is, that’s a complete lack of respect,” Romano said. “I walked out because my work is absolutely useless on that committee.”

On Saturday, Romano had argued against the bill, which would lower interest rates on delayed payments of court claims. He said the current law encourages defendants to pay judgments quickly to avoid accumulating high interest payments, saying the bill would pose financial hardships for businesses and individuals alike.

“They keep beating us down. It’s demoralizing,” said Prezioso, the Senate minority leader. “We’re elected officials. The voters sent us down here to make intelligent decisions.”

Last week, Senate Democrats objected when the Senate majority rejected the confirmations of two gubernatorial appointees, who also happened to be the state Democratic Party chairwoman, and the daughter of a past Democratic Party chairman.

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