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DUI offenders could get licenses back

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OKLAHOMA - Hundreds of DUI offenders could be getting their driver’s licenses back after an Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals ruling.

This is all because their attorneys said their constitutional right to a speedy trial is being violated.

When someone is arrested for DUI, there is a criminal component handled through the courts.

But, if they want a hearing to try and get their license back, that happens at an administrative hearing at the Department of Public Safety.

But, that system is apparently so backlogged that some attorneys said their clients are having to wait up to two years.

A civil court has now ruled that’s just too long.

“It’s in the Oklahoma constitution and, if we don’t honor it for drunk drivers, then we’re not going to honor it for anybody else either,” said DUI attorney Charles Sifers.

It’s the right to a speedy trial.

And, Sifers, who has handled close to 5,000 DUI cases, said that was not happening.

“Just sit there and float around waiting for them to finally say, yeah, your license is revoked or, no, it’s not,” Sifers said.

The plaintiff in Sifers’ case was charged with a DUI in May of 2014.

Her criminal case was done by August of the same year, but she didn’t get her hearing before DPS on the status of her driver’s license until July of 2015.

“It just gets backloaded. Well, we said, time, something’s gotta be done,” Sifers said.

The Court of Civil Appeals found “Keeping drunk drivers off Oklahoma’s roadways is of paramount importance. However, the facts of this case dictate that (the plaintiff) was deprived of her constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

That means Sifers’ client will get her license back and so will a lot of other DUI offenders whose DPS hearing wasn’t speedy enough.

“What it means is the driver’s license revocations aren’t going to occur if they don’t speed up their system,” Sifers said.

“We’re short staffed just like a lot of other agencies,” said Captain Paul Timmons with the Department of Public Safety.

Timmons said the number of people requesting a hearing to get their license back has dramatically increased since a new law went into effect in 2011.

“We want to try to provide the best, the most prompt services we possibly can and not take shortcuts,” Timmons said.

“This will force something. I don’t know what it’ll do,” Sifers said.

Sifers said the ruling will have an effect on hundreds, if not thousands, of other DUI cases.

The Department of Public Safety could challenge the ruling, and that would put everything on hold.

It’s also important to note the Court of Civil Appeals did not cite a specific time that was too long to wait for the hearing.

The Department of Public Safety released the following statement on the hearing:

"When a driver is arrested for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in Oklahoma, the driver is charged with the crime of driving under the influence and also provided notice that their driving privileges will be administratively revoked by the Department of Public Safety.

When DPS receives sufficient notice of a DUI arrest, the driver’s driving privileges are automatically revoked 30 days after the date the notice was provided to the driver. If the driver wants to contest this revocation, the driver has the right to request an administrative hearing within 15 days from the date they received notice. If a hearing is timely requested, the revocation will be stayed and not go into effect. The driver has full driving privileges until the hearing is held and the revocation is upheld. If the revocation is upheld, the driver may appeal that decision to the District Court. Again, if a timely appeal is made, the revocation is stayed and the driver has full driving privileges until the District Court makes a ruling. If the District Court finds the revocation valid, the driver may appeal that decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where it will be assigned to the Court of Civil Appeals. Any revocation is stayed and the driver retains full driving privileges until the Court of Civil Appeals renders a decision upholding the revocation. If the Court of Civil Appeals upholds the revocation, the driver may ask the Oklahoma Supreme Court to review that decision.

Recently, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals issued several opinions where it determined that the amount of time it takes to have the administrative hearing with DPS, which can average between 10 and 15 months, is too long and violates the driver’s right to a speedy trial. The administrative hearings conducted by DPS are held Monday through Friday, except holidays and times when the Department is closed for business. Currently, it takes approximately 12 months from the date of request to the next available opening for a hearing. This time frame is dictated primarily by the large volume of hearing requests, the number of requests for a continuance, the availability of witnesses, and the limited number of DPS hearing officers and staff. The Court of Appeals failed to provide a time frame that it would not consider to be a violation of a driver’s right to a speedy trial, but the cases in which they have found the time frame to be too long involved a time frame of more than 12 months. The Department of Public Safety is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to review these decisions and uphold what would otherwise be valid revocations. There are approximately 25 drivers whose revocations will be overturned as a result of these opinions. The Department is also reviewing whether these opinions could apply to any other drivers.

From a public safety perspective, these opinions will not necessarily have a negative impact because even if these revocations were upheld, state law requires that DPS stay any revocation of driving privileges pending a hearing or an appeal. If a driver appealed their revocation all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, they are permitted to drive the entire time, which in some cases could be up to three years, or even longer in extreme circumstances. The risk to public safety occurred when the person drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Also, most of the drivers affected by these opinions are not repeat offenders. Typically, a repeat offender will not qualify for a deferred sentence and is more likely to receive a conviction. If any of these drivers had received a conviction for the crime of driving under the influence, state law requires that their driving privileges be automatically revoked, even if they request an administrative hearing.

Ultimately, the Department of Public Safety is doing everything it can to reduce the length of time to have a hearing. The timeliness of the hearings is not due to a lack of effort. We are attempting to upgrade our computer system and if possible, hire additional staff, which is extremely challenging in the midst of a significant budget reduction for FY17. We are also exploring changes to Oklahoma law that will better address driving under the influence and reduce its impact on our state. Meanwhile, the Department strongly urges Oklahomans to simply not drive under the influence or allow friends or others to drive under the influence."