6/16/2005Florida Court: High School Graduates Can Rule on Motorist Guilt
Text of Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals ruling allowing non-lawyers to serve as hearing officers in serious DMV cases.
Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that employees with no more than a high school diploma may decide the fate of a motorist accused -- but not convicted -- of a crime such as driving under the influence of alcohol.
Under Florida law, anyone suspected of driving while intoxicated automatically has his license suspended. The accused has the right to appeal this suspension, but the appeal is heard not by a judge but a Department of Motor Vehicles employee who is not trained in the law. Often lawyers defending the accused end up presenting highly technical evidence to an individual with only a high school level of education.
Yesterday's decision overturned a lower court ruling that had found this procedure violated the due process rights of the accused. The Fourth Circuit cited instances where Florida law allows voters to elect non-lawyers as county judges to show "using non-lawyer hearing officers does not run afoul of the state or federal constitutions nor the due process rights of the motorists."
The court did, however, agree that in at least one case the DMV hearing officer was not a neutral party and acted as an advocate on behalf of the DMV. Instead of finding this an inherent weakness in the system, the court issued a warning to the DMV.
"We do strongly caution those hearing officers that they must take extraordinary care to be as impartial and neutral as the members of the judiciary are required to be," the court wrote.