One-Way Street

Popped for DUI? Smile. You've just fallen victim to the DHSMV's kangaroo court.

Even more frightening for those accused of DUI, the state agency doesn't deny those charges. In response to questions submitted by Fields, Michael J. Alderman, assistant general counsel for the DHSMV, told the court that none of the hearing officers has formal legal training and that they regularly have ex parte communications with agency attorneys, or prosecutors -- that is, unrecorded private discussions either outside of the courtroom or out of the hearing of court stenographers and defense lawyers.

Even totalitarian dictatorships pretend to be fair. But at DHSMV hearings, cases often come down to the defendant's word against the police officer's, and rarely will hearing officers believe the defendant over the civil servant, according to Fields. Additionally, evidence obtained improperly is hardly ever thrown out. For Breathalyzer results to be admitted into court evidence, the arresting police officer must have had reason to make the vehicle stop and then significant probable cause to give the sobriety check -- procedures that create a constitutional litmus test intended to ensure that police officers do not trample on driver's rights. "In many of these cases, where we've lost at the agency, the identical issue comes before the judge [in the criminal case] and we win," Fields says. In fact, Fields has had clients who were found not guilty of DUI criminal charges but still had their licenses suspended following a DHSMV civil hearing.

When he was asked for an interview, Alderman said his agency does not comment on pending litigation. However, he recommended that New Times e-mail him questions. He did not respond.

"If I could tell the judges what the law is," lawyer Sam Fields says, "I'd never lose a hearing."
Colby Katz
"If I could tell the judges what the law is," lawyer Sam Fields says, "I'd never lose a hearing."

"In the finite wisdom of the Florida Legislature," Fields says, "lawmakers said, 'We're just going to have Selma and Patty [Homer Simpson's gruff, rowdy sisters-in-law, both DMV employees in "Springfield"] handle these cases.' Can't you just see them? They're smoking cigarettes, giggling, and saying: 'Oh, was that great! We suspended Homer's license again. '"

All of this is not to say that Roldan and other hearing officers do subpar work. Indeed, Roldan appears to perform her duties with respect and courtesy to both the defendants and the police officers testifying before her. In the hearing room, though, she sometimes candidly reveals her lack of legal sophistication. At one point during a hearing, Roldan commented to a defendant who was representing himself: "It's very complicated, very difficult to understand. It's all legal stuff." At another time, explaining her mandate to a defendant, she insisted: "I need to be fair. That's why I'm here, to be fair and impartial."

Fields sees his lawsuit, for which no court dates have been set, as a first step toward eliminating these kangaroo courts, which he believes have survived for more than a decade because their victims aren't popular in society. "You're asking for justice for people nobody likes," he says. "But that's what has to be done. If I don't do it, the government is like anyone else. They're going to do the least they have to do to get the result they want."

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