If a driver in California is involved in a fatal traffic accident, they can quickly find themselves mired in a sea of emotion as well as financial and legal challenges. In addition to the emotional trauma that one can suffer when someone else has lost their life, a driver involved in a fatal traffic accident may find themselves the focus of criminal prosecution or a defendant in a civil law suit.
What many drivers don’t realize is that being involved in a fatal traffic accident may also cost them their privilege to drive. That’s right….. in addition to all of the other torment following a fatal traffic accident, an involved driver may actually see their driver license suspended or revoked; even if they played little or no role in the accident. Additionally, such an action may take months or years to begin; so just when a driver thought they had put a terrible event behind them, a simple trip to the mail box could reveal that their lives are about to be impacted again.
In California the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is an enormously power government agency with the mandate to monitor the driving privilege of all California Drivers. If the DMV determines that a particular driver has caused or contributed to a fatal traffic accident, the department may label that person as a negligent or incompetent operator and may exercise its power to withdraw that person’s license to drive. The procedure normally followed in the suspension or revocation of a person’s driving privilege for involvement in a Fatal Traffic Accident these five steps:
The DMV will receive information regarding a person’s involvement in a fatal traffic accident from a variety of sources:
If the DMV receives information that any driver “caused or contributed” to a fatal accident, the California Vehicle Code specifically empowers the DMV to conduct an investigation into the driver’s history and habits; as well as the facts involved in the traffic accident. If the DMV suspects that the driver caused, contributed to the accident; or failed to exercise any reasonable means to avoid the traffic accident, it will act to remove that person from the road.
California Vehicle Code Section 13800, determines…. “The department may conduct an investigation to determine if the privilege of any person to operate a motor vehicle should be suspended or revoked…..”
California Vehicle Code Section 12809 (e), determines…. “The department may refuse to issue or renew a driver’s license to any person if the department determines that the applicant is a negligent or incompetent operator of a motor vehicle.”
California Vehicle Code Section 13359, determines…. “The department may suspend or revoke the privilege of any person to operate a motor vehicle upon any of the grounds which authorize the refusal to issue a license.”
When the DMV receives any information which suggests any driver has caused or
contributed to a fatal traffic accident, the department will identify that person as a Negligent Operator and will immediately begin the process to either suspend or revoke that person’s privilege to drive. The DMV is permitted to take this action without further evidence or investigation. The fact that an accident occurred and that another person lost their life is sufficient to suspend the driving privilege of any surviving person who was involved in the accident.
In almost every instance, the accused driver will learn they have come under DMV scrutiny when they receive a written notice in the mail. The DMV does not communicate this information by email or by telephone. These notices are only sent by First Class Mail, which is one reason it is so important to keep the DMV updated on any changes of address.
The Order of Suspension/Revocation will clearly state the reason the action is being taken and the Vehicle Code section granting the DMV the power to do so. The notice will also indicate the effective date of the suspension/revocation. Finally, this notice will advise the driver that he or she has 14 days to contact the department to request an administrative hearing to contest the suspension/revocation of their driving privilege. Failure to contact the appropriate division of the DMV within that time frame will waive one’s right to a hearing and the suspension/revocation will automatically go into effect on the intended date.
The fact is, many drivers never see this coming. At one moment, the involved driver is trying to put a horrific event behind him and in the next instant, he in standing there with an “Order of Suspension/Revocation” in his hands. It is normal for the driver to be shocked, angry, sad, and then frightened. Once the initial emotion passes, however, the accused driver must act quickly to prevent the automatic suspension/revocation of their license.
In almost all instances, an accused driver will be provided a period of 14 days, from the date the order was signed, to contact the DMV to schedule a hearing. The hearing itself will not occur within 14 days, but the initial contact to schedule the hearing must occur within that 14 day window of opportunity. Because very few people deal with the DMV at this level, most drivers have no idea where the contact must be made. This can create problems.
The accused driver (or their representative) must contact the Driver Safety Office located closest to the driver’s home to request a hearing. Contacting a local DMV Field Office will do no good. The Driver Safety Office is the DMV version of a courthouse.
Because someone has lost their life, the DMV will seek to act quickly to suspend or revoke the driver’s privilege and will frequently be resistant to issuing a “Stay” of suspension. A Stay of Suspension delays the suspension/revocation until the outcome of the hearing. Frankly, the DMV wants its “pound of flesh” and they will resist any attempt of a person to keep driving while the process proceeds. Despite this blind approach to license suspension, the DMV does have the discretion to issue a Stay and if handled correctly from the very beginning, the driver may be able to continue driving until a final decision is made.
The request for a Fatality Hearing can be confusing and frustrating. All drivers who have contact with the Driver Safety Office should keep extensive notes which include the name of the staff member they spoke to as well as the date and time of contact. Consideration must also be given to whether the driver wishes to conduct his hearing “in-person” or by “telephone.”
If an accused driver contacts the Driver Safety Office in the timeframe mandated by law, the department has no option; it must grant the driver a hearing. Furthermore, the department must provide the driver copies of all its evidence and notification of any witnesses that the department intends to call for testimony. Known as “Discovery,” these items of evidence frequently include Traffic Collision Reports, Arrest Reports, Witness Statements, Accident Reconstruction Reports, Photographs, Diagrams, Reports of Autopsy and Weather Reports. In nearly all fatality hearings, the DMV will present the live testimony of the Law Enforcement Officer who primarily investigated the accident.
Once the DMV has scheduled a hearing and has provided the driver with a copy of Discovery, they have fulfilled their obligation in assisting the driver. The department has no obligation to assist the driver in assessing the evidence or preparing for the hearing. Drivers who seek guidance from the DMV will be disappointed when they find little or no viable help.
A Fatality hearing is conducted very much like a mini trial. Evidence is introduced and objections are heard. Witnesses may testify and arguments are offered. To properly conduct a Fatality Hearing requires that the driver have some skill and knowledge with the Vehicle Code, the Evidence Code, the California Code of Civil Procedures and the Administrative Procedures Act. Drivers also must be prepared to offer testimony on their own behalf, which can be quite stressful. Furthermore, because the investigating law enforcement officer is likely to testify, the driver must be prepared to cross-examine the officer. Fortunately, California Law does permit drivers to be represented by defense experts known as Administrative Advocates. Being represented by an Administrative Advocate assists a driver in navigating through the DMV’s hearing process and greatly increases one’s odds of victory, especially in these more serious hearings.
Once the Fatality Hearing has concluded, the assigned Hearing Officer has several options in going forward. In nearly all fatality cases, the Hearing Officer has great discretion. Only in cases where a driver has suffered a court conviction for certain criminal offenses is a suspension/revocation mandatory.
All California drivers have the legal right to represent themselves at DMV administrative hearings but, they are also permitted to be represented by specially trained DMV Defense Experts known as Administrative Advocates. Administrative Advocates work daily with the DMV and handle a variety of administrative hearings including the Fatality Hearing. A highly trained and experienced Administrative Advocate will have insight into the inner workings of the DMV and will have established relationships with DMV staff that can truly benefit the affected driver. Knowing how to schedule a hearing, prepare evidence and then conduct a hearing can help to ensure the best possible result at such a hearing.
Because a driver is permitted to represent themselves, they need not go to any expense in hiring a representative. You are permitted to request your own hearing and to present your own defense. If you would prefer to be represented however, DMV Administrative Advocates can assist you in fighting to protect your driving privilege.