Monday, August 1, 2011
DMV settles with motorists
By Sean Windle
Special to the Daily Journal LOS ANGELES -
In an unprecedented case, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will be held financially responsible for damages suffered by more than 700 motorists as a result of having their driver's licenses unlawfully suspended for operating a boat while intoxicated.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jane L. Johnson on Thursday gave preliminary approval for a $5.6 million settlement between the department and the 753 motorists involved in the class action, which revealed a more than decade-long practice of treating BUI convictions the same as driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
Johnson scheduled Nov. 18 for final approval of the settlement.
The seeds for the case sprouted in 2005 when Montebello native Ronnie Cinquegrani lost his driver's license shortly after pleading guilty to driving a recreational watercraft on the Colorado River in San Bernardino County while intoxicated. Cinquegrani contacted Santa Monica attorney Joshua Needle, who challenged the suspension as unlawful, and the DMV agreed to set it aside.
"The DMV is quick to suspend licenses and very slow to reinstate," Needle said. "When they agreed to set aside the suspension after a phone call, it was suspicious."
Needle said he researched the situation and learned that the department was automatically suspending licenses for BUI convictions based on its own statutory interpretation. If someone complained, Needle said, the department would set aside the suspension, calling it "a computer glitch."
Department officials would set aside only suspensions that were challenged by the motorist or an attorney, Needle said. "We call them the magic words: 'You can't do this. I'm calling a lawyer,'" said attorney Michael S. Morrison, of counsel to Alexander, Krakow & Glick LLP.
Some motorists who didn't challenge their license suspensions went without driving privileges for as long as three years, Morrison said.
In 2006, Morrison joined Needle and attorneys Paul L. Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris, Hoffman & Harrison LLP and Thomas E. Beck of The Beck Law Firm in Los Alamitos in filing a complaint against the department for financial and injunctive relief. Judge Victoria G. Chaney ordered a permanent injunction in 2009 against the department, halting all license suspensions for BUI convictions and voiding all such suspensions issued after July 19, 2004 - the maximum reach of the statute of limitations. Chaney now sits on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
The Office of the Attorney General, which represented the department in court, maintains that it suspended licenses for the purposes of public safety in accordance with the department's interpretation of pertinent statutory law and not due to a computer glitch.
"Because there is no license required to drive a boat, when somebody was convicted of BUI, it acted as a deterrent to subsequent DUI behavior," Deputy Attorney General Jennie M. Kelly said. "Of the 753 plaintiffs, approximately 240 had prior or subsequent DUI or BUI convictions. That statistic speaks for itself."
For Hoffman and the rest of plaintiffs' counsel, the case was ultimately about a state government agency adhering to the law.
"It's not like the law has let people off," Hoffman said. "The thing about this case was there was a particular penalty the law did not authorize, and that's wrong."