Public hearing held on DUI court proceedings bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Those for and against a bill to change DUI court proceedings voiced their concerns during a public hearing Friday morning in the House of Delegates Chamber.

SB 212 is currently before the House Judiciary Committee. It already passed the Senate.

The bill would eliminate the state Department of Transportation’s Office of Administrative Hearings and move all matters relating to driver’s license suspensions and revocations to the court system.

Prosecutors in West Virginia spoke against the bill Friday. Magistrate judges were in favor it.

Kanawha County Prosecutor Chuck Miller said magistrates will need more resources to handle the extra caseload.

“They’ll be some pressure on them, if you will, to dismiss these cases and they don’t have this administrative revocation process to deal with,” Miller said.

Julie Yeager, Kanawha County Magistrate Judge representing the West Virginia Magistrates Association, was at Friday’s hearing to support the bill and to ensure that magistrates will be able to handle the DUI cases.

“We believe that it would be beneficial to law enforcement and that we would take care of all of it at one time. There would not be a delay in the DMV hearings,” Yeager said.

Opponents say the bill will increase the number of impaired drivers on West Virginia’s roads. Supporters say eliminating the program will save the state close to $3 million annually.

West Virginia’s Administrative License Revocation law was enacted in 2008. Since then, ignition interlocks have been installed in vehicles to help decrease alcohol-related crashes and deaths. The breathalyzer device requires a person to blow into a mouthpiece before starting the vehicle. If the device detects a high blood alcohol level, the vehicle won’t start.

According to a report released this week from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, ignition interlocks have stopped 24,331 West Virginians from driving impaired.

“That process is saving lives of innocent people on the roads of West Virginia,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty who spoke against the bill.

Dougherty told members of the House he’s seen the positive impacts of the program, since becoming a magistrate in 1977.

“In the 1980s when this process began, we were having about 240 people a year die on the roads in West Virginia. Today, we have 63,” he said.

Without the administrative office, Dougherty said the “burden” on law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts “will intensify.”

Raleigh County Magistrate Judge Steve Massey said that’s not the case.

“This bill wouldn’t over burden us. It would actually lessen our burden because we’re not waiting on two or three years for the DMV court to finish their process before we can deal with a case,” Massey said.

On Wednesday, police officers and doctors were at the state Capitol to oppose the bill. They reported a huge decrease in fatal alcohol-related deaths over the last several years.

Saturday marks one week until the close of the 2017 Regular Legislative Session.

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