DMV Hearings and Procedural Due Process

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in Edwards v. Jessup, 282 N.C. App. 213 (2022), considered whether a license revocation hearing in which a hearing officer employed by the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) both elicited and evaluated evidence, ultimately ordering revocation, violated the petitioning driver’s right to due process. Spoiler alert:  The Court held that the DMV hearing process did not violate the driver’s constitutional rights. Continue reading to learn why.

The backstory. In February 2019, an officer responded to a call that a driver had fallen asleep in a car in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant. When he arrived, the officer found Ida Edwards asleep behind the wheel of a car in the parking lot. After observing signs that Edwards was impaired and hearing her admit that she had recently taken Hydrocodone, the officer arrested Edwards for impaired driving. Edwards later refused to consent to the withdrawal of her blood for analysis.

That refusal triggered the officer to execute and submit to DMV a sworn affidavit (form AOC-CVR-1A) stating that Edwards was charged with impaired driving, the officer had reasonable grounds to believe Edwards committed that offense, that Edwards was notified of her implied consent rights, and that Edwards willfully refused to submit to a chemical analysis. See G.S. 20-16.2(c1). DMV then notified Edwards that her license would be revoked for one year, but that she could request a DMV hearing before the revocation became effective. G.S. 20-16.2(d). Edwards requested the hearing (which requires pre-payment of a $450 hearing fee or proof of indigency, see 19A NCAC 03K .0102 (6)).

The DMV hearing. An attorney represented Edwards at the DMV hearing, but, as is always the case at such hearings, no attorney represented the State. The arresting officer, who also was the chemical analyst testified, presumably having been subpoenaed by the hearing officer pursuant to G.S. 20-16.2(d). The hearing officer elicited testimony from the arresting officer, ruled on evidentiary objections by Edwards’ attorney, and permitted Edwards’ attorney to question the arresting officer and make a closing statement. The hearing officer subsequently issued an order sustaining the revocation.

The appeal to superior court. Edwards appealed the revocation order to superior court. The superior court’s review in this kind of case is limited to three issues:  determining whether (1) the DMV hearing officer’s findings of fact are supported by sufficient evidence, (2) the hearing officer’s conclusions of law are supported by the findings of fact, and (3) the hearing officer committed an error of law in revoking the license. G.S. 20-16.2(e).

The superior court concluded that because the hearing was conducted by a DMV employee who essentially functioned as prosecutor and judge, the hearing failed to afford the petitioner an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner, thus depriving the petitioner of due process. The superior court also ruled that the record did not support the finding that Edwards was driving and thus failed to establish reasonable grounds to believe that she had committed an implied consent offense. The State appealed.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion. After concluding that the evidence supported a finding that the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the petitioner was driving her vehicle while impaired, the Court of Appeals addressed the petitioner’s due process claim. The Court of Appeals noted that the state’s appellate courts had not previously considered whether the refusal revocation and hearing procedures in G.S. 20-16.2 comported with the requirements of procedural due process (notwithstanding that license-revocation-for-refusal provisions were enacted some 53 years ago). The matter had, however, been considered by the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

In Montgomery v. North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, 455 F. Supp. 338 (1978), affirmed, 599 F.2d 1048 (4th Cir. 1979) (unpublished), the plaintiff argued that the revocation of his license following a DMV hearing, based upon his refusal to submit to testing, deprived him of procedural due process. The federal district court rejected that claim, concluding that the statutory scheme that afforded the plaintiff the right to a pre-deprivation hearing, de novo review in the superior court, and review by the State’s appellate courts afforded him procedural due process. The superior court in Edwards had distinguished Montgomery on the basis that the superior court’s review was no longer de novo, but instead was limited to the three issues mentioned above.

The Court of Appeals did not agree that this more limited standard of review rendered the procedure constitutionally deficient. Cf. Lytle v. State Dep’t of Licensing, 971 P.2d 969, 971–72 (Wash. App. 1999) (holding that petitioner’s due process rights were violated by license revocation hearing in which he was unable to cross-examine the officers who submitted evidence against him in written reports and from which de novo review by the superior court had been eliminated). The Edwards Court further reasoned that the fact that the hearing officer was a DMV employee did not invalidate the process, citing the United States Supreme Court’s determination in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 570-71 (1974), that the mere fact that disciplinary hearings were presided over by prison officials did not deprive prisoners of due process. The Edwards Court noted there was no indication that the DMV hearing officer in the case at hand had any special knowledge of or connection to Edwards’ case that would indicate a lack of impartiality. Moreover, the Court held that the procedure prescribed by G.S. 20-16.2 in which the hearing officer considers the evidence in the file, issues subpoenas when necessary, and questions the driver and other witnesses did not violate due process.  Indeed, the court noted that even in adversarial proceedings, the trial judge (also an employee of the State) may call or question a witness. Edwards, 282 N.C. App. at 217 (citing State v. Pearce, 296 N.C. 281 (1979)).