As it says in the driver's education booklet, "driving is a privilege and not a right." So, a driver can lose this privilege for various reasons, including having too many tickets or being arrested for a serious traffic offense like driving under the influence (DUI). Unlike criminal convictions, administrative DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) suspensions and revocations can sometimes occur without a court proceedings or a trial where a prosecutor must prove a charge "beyond a reasonable doubt." This article explains some of the reasons that can lead to an administrative license suspension as well as the administrative hearing and appeal process.
A driver's license can be administratively revoked by the DMV for a variety of reasons. Drivers who are convicted of certain serious traffic-related offenses like reckless driving or vehicular homicide might face revocation. And, drivers who get several minor tickets (such as speeding or stop sign violations) within a certain period of time might be looking at license suspension for acquiring too many demerit points.
However, not all administrative suspensions require a conviction in criminal or traffic court. DUI implied consent laws allow the DMV to suspend a driver's license based only on a DUI arrest—a conviction isn't necessary. Generally, any driver who's lawfully arrested for a DUI and either has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or more or refuses to take a chemical test (such as a blood or breath test) will face administrative license suspension. These types of suspension are sometimes called "administrative per se" suspensions.
The DUI administrative suspension process is initiated by the arresting officer submitting an affidavit (stating the driver refused or failed a chemical test) to the DMV. In other words, these types of administrative suspensions don't require a trial, judge approval, or a conviction to go into effect.
Administrative suspensions go into effect automatically unless the driver requests a hearing. After receiving notice of the suspension, the driver has a limited amount of time (usually somewhere in the range of ten to 14 days) to request a hearing to contest the suspension. The driver normally must submit some sort of formal request for a hearing to the DMV. Typically, requesting a hearing puts the suspension on hold (often called a "stay" of the suspension) until the hearing is complete. If the driver isn't happy with the outcome of the hearing, there's generally a way to appeal.
Depending on the reason for the suspension, the administrative hearing might be in-person, over-the-phone, or simply a review of the driver's record. The person who ultimately decides the hearing (basically, serves as the judge for the hearing) is a DMV commissioner or hearing officer.
For instance, an administrative hearing of a point-related suspension will likely involve only a commissioner reviewing the driver's record for inaccuracies. Point-related suspensions are fairly straightforward, so there's typically no need for anyone to present evidence and no room for legal arguments.
DUI hearings, on the other hand, are normally more involved. In most states, the officer must prove that the investigation lawful and the chemical test was administered properly (some states like Kansas place the burden on the driver to prove impropriety). So, at the hearing, the officer will typically testify, and the hearing officer will review any documentation related to the arrest and chemical testing. The driver also has an opportunity to present evidence and challenge any evidence presented by the state. If the evidence shows the officer had probable cause to arrest the driver, the chemical test was accurate, and the officer followed testing protocol, the hearing officer will likely affirm the suspension. But if there are holes in the evidence or the driver is able to cast enough doubt on the state's case, the hearing officer might throw out the suspension.
If the hearing officer affirms the suspension, the driver can typically appeal to the courts. The process for appealing an administrative license suspension varies by state. But, basically, the appeal gives the driver the opportunity to have a judge review the findings of the administrative commissioner or hearing officer.
Since administrative license suspensions aren't considered criminal case matters, drivers are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney in these proceedings. However, drivers can retain private counsel to handing DMV hearings. If you're facing an administrative suspension, it's probably a good idea to talk to an experienced attorney, especially if the suspension is related to a DUI arrest.