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What are my rights at a DMV Hearing for Financial Responsibility?

What is a Financial Responsibility Hearing at the DMV?  From a very young age, all Californians are told that driving a motor vehicle in California is a “privilege” not a “right.” The Supreme Court actually waded into this debate and made a finding that testing and applying for a driver license is a privilege but, once the driver license is granted, it becomes a vested property right. Because of this, and because so much is tied to the possession of a driver license, the suspension or revocation of that license requires Procedural Due Process.

So, if the DMV seeks to suspend or revoke a person’s driver license, the affected driver has a right to defend themselves and to rebut any evidence or information being used to justify the suspension or revocation. This means that an accused driver has a right to contest the intended suspension or revocation of their driver license at an Administrative Hearing conducted by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Division of Driver Safety.

The California Vehicle Code (CVC) grants the DMV broad powers to suspend or revoke a person’s driving privilege for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • DUI
  • Negligent Operation
  • Physical or Mental conditions
  • Lack of Skill
  • Causing or contributing to fatal or serious injury traffic collisions
  • Fraudulent activity
  • Financial Responsibility

In this chapter, we discuss administrative hearings conducted by the Department of Motor Vehicles over issues of Financial Responsibility.

CVC sections 16000-16078 outline the provisions of California’s compulsory Financial Responsibility law. Essentially these laws mandate that any person who owns or operates a motor vehicle in the State of California must maintain proof of liability insurance or another form of Financial Responsibility to pay for any injury, death or property damage that occurs as a result of a traffic accident. Failure to maintain such forms of Financial Responsibility empowers the DMV to suspend or revoke a person’s driver license and it is through a Financial Responsibility Hearing that the accused driver defends themselves. The Financial Responsibility Hearing is run in strict accordance with California Administrative law. These proceedings are run much like a mini trial as evidence is presented, witnesses may testify and legal arguments are filed.

These administrative hearings are intended to be a fair and impartial forum for persons facing the loss of their driving privilege to present information for the DMV’s consideration. While administrative hearings are designed to operate under more relaxed standards of evidence and procedure, they remain confusing and frustrating. Furthermore, DMV employees do little or nothing to explain proper procedures to the affected driver.

What are my legal rights at a DMV Hearing?

The California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP), the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and the California Vehicle Code (CVC) describe specific rights that are afforded to each driver at a DMV Administrative Hearing. All drivers have a right to:

  • Be represented by an attorney or any other representative of your choosing; at your expense.
  • Review all evidence and to cross-examine any witness presented by the DMV.
  • Testify on your own behalf.
  • Cross-examine opposing witnesses.
  • Issue subpoenas for the testimony of witnesses or the production of relevant evidence.
  • Introduce evidence on your own behalf.
  • A full and fair consideration of the facts by an impartial person
  • A departmental review and/or judicial appeal of any adverse decision.
  • The assistance of a sign, or language interpreter at no cost.

Representation: Because the issues and procedures occurring at an Administrative Hearing can be complex, confusing and frustrating, it is advisable for a driver to be represented by someone with an expertise in DMV defense. While an accused driver may be represented by an attorney, few attorneys understand the unique procedures at the DMV. The DMV process is entirely separate and vastly different from what occurs in a court setting. As a result, many drivers choose to be represented by uniquely experienced professionals known as Administrative Advocates. Administrative Advocates are highly trained / non-attorney, representatives who are authorized to represent drivers at the DMV. The DMV Defense Experts at California Drivers Advocates are precisely this type of expert. CDA has represented hundreds of drivers in virtually every type of Administrative Hearing conducted by the DMV. Our level of experience is second to none.

Reviewing Evidence and Cross-Examining Witnesses: Once a Financial Responsibility Hearing is scheduled, the DMV is mandated to provide all Discovery to the driver or his/her legal representative. “Discovery” normally consists of any police reports, lab reports, insurance reports, auto repair reports, medical documents and a person’s driving record. The DMV’s Discovery may also include the names of witnesses the DMV intends to call for testimony.

Because an accused driver must be given ample time to prepare their defense, the DMV’s Discovery must be provided to the driver more than 10-days before any scheduled hearing.

Testifying on one’s own behalf: A driver has an absolute right to offer their own testimony at any Financial Responsibility Hearing. Even though the right exists, great consideration should be given to this issue. Any testimony presented by an accused driver is taken “under oath” and is audio recorded. If there were a separate civil action pending against a driver, testimony given at a DMV hearing is available for potential discovery by other parties.

Also, the DMV will often convene a hearing with little or no evidence upon which to proceed. If an accused driver were to testify, the DMV Hearing Officer will often seek to illicit information from the driver that tends to prove the DMV’s case.

Cross-Examination of opposing witnesses: If the DMV intends to present any witnesses in support of their case, the accused driver has a right to “cross-examine” those witnesses during the hearing. The DMV Hearing Officer will often seek to control the scope of cross-examination and will seek to prevent the driver from asking argumentative or irrelevant questions. The cross-examination of a witness can be tricky and should be handled by a DMV Defense Expert.

Issuance of Subpoenas: The rules of Procedural Due Process require that an accused driver be granted the right to issue subpoenas for the production of evidence or the testimony of witnesses. On its face, the issuance of subpoenas may seem simple but, once a driver attempts to issue subpoenas, they can become frustrated over how and where to issue the subpoenas, the payment of subpoena fees, or the process for receiving the evidence.   Issuing subpoenas to witnesses can also create problems with the availability or willingness of a witness to testify.

Introduce evidence on your own behalf: The introduction of exculpatory or affirmative evidence is a right that is guaranteed under Procedural Due Process; however, few drivers understand the procedures required to introduce evidence at a hearing.

Any proffered evidence must be relevant, trustworthy and unambiguous. The introduction of affirmative evidence also requires that it be presented to the DMV Hearing Officer in a particular format and at a particular date prior to the hearing.

Because few drivers understand the requirements for presenting evidence at a hearing, the smart person will retain the services of a DMV Defense Expert to ensure evidence is prepared and presented correctly.

A full and fair consideration of the facts: The person who sits in judgement of a driver at a Financial Responsibility Hearing is known as a DMV Hearing Officer. Also known as a Trier of Fact, these people are anything but impartial. The DMV Hearing Officer is an employee of the DMV. They are not independent triers of fact as they are employed by the very agency that seeks to suspend your driver license.

Getting an impartial evaluation of your case can be difficult. This is why being represented by a DMV Defense Expert from CDA is so important. We ensure that all of the accurate evidence is presented and explained so that the Hearing Officer is much more likely to understand your point of view and rule in your favor.

A right to departmental review and/or judicial appeal: Filing a request for Departmental Review is often a practice in futility. If a driver receives an unfavorable decision at the Financial Responsibility Hearing, they do have a right to Department Review. Understand, however, that this is the DMV reviewing itself. It is rare that the Departmental Review Unit in Sacramento overturns the decision of a local DMV Hearing Officer. This is a rarely successful procedure so it must be handled by a DMV Defense Expert to have any hope of success.

Filing a Judicial Appeal is generally a much more positive way of reversing an unfavorable ruling at a DMV Hearing. The Judicial Appeal, also known as a “Writ of Mandamus or Writ of Mandate” is a full-blown legal appeal heard at the Superior Court.   However, the Writ of Mandate can be quite costly and can only be based upon information that was presented at the original DMV hearing. Based on this, your DMV Defense Expert must argue sufficiently at the DMV Hearing and must “preserve the record” because, if not, a Writ of Mandate will have no basis for filing.

Right to an interpreter: The DMV must provide interpreters in American Sign Language or any spoken language at the request of the driver. This service is provided at no cost to the driver. Contact should be made with the assigned DMV Hearing Officer as soon as possible to ensure the availability of an interpreter.

How can I protect my rights at a Financial Responsibility Hearing? While it is true that all drivers are entitled to certain rights at a Financial Responsibility hearing, the only way to truly ensure those rights are protected is through the representation of a DMV Defense Expert. The Financial Responsibility hearing is a maze of government codes, laws and procedures that even many attorneys do not understand; and while the DMV promises all drivers the right to Procedural Due Process, many DMV employees are poorly trained and do little or nothing to assist a driver in exercising those rights.

The DMV Defense Experts at California Drivers Advocates (CDA) are a group of Administrative Law Advocates who have been battling the DMV for many years. We know precisely what rights are assured to a driver and we know now to exercise those rights in protecting you.

Don’t let the DMV or anyone else trample on your rights to Due Process. Call CDA today, we’ll make sure you get a fair hearing.

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