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Judge upholds New York state DMV's "dangerous driver" restrictions

Sunday, March 2, 2014
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— The Department of Motor Vehicles was within its authority in enacting tough new licensing requirements that kept a “persistently dangerous driver” off the road, a state judge ruled.

The new requirements did not conflict with existing Vehicle and Traffic Law, step on legislative toes, or violate anyone’s constitutional rights, state Supreme Court Justice George B. Ceresia Jr. wrote in a decision last month.

The ruling came in response to one of the many dozens of lawsuits filed in Albany County last year that challenged the regulations put in place by the DMV in 2012 to keep licenses from drivers with a history of alcohol- or drug-related driving convictions.

The plaintiffs in those cases — each with multiple convictions for driving while intoxicated or driving while ability impaired — were deemed repeat offenders and denied new driver’s licenses under the regulations.

After unsuccessfully appealing their cases before the DMV, they took their fight to state Supreme Court, arguing the regulations were arbitrary, capricious and an unconstitutional power grab by the executive branch.

A half-dozen of the lawsuits went before Ceresia in a hearing last fall as representing the “core legal issues” of more than two dozen cases brought by Eric Sills of the Albany law firm Gerstenzang, O’Hern, Hickey, Sills & Gerstenzang.

Other law firms also have challenged the regulations, and new lawsuits continue to be filed in Albany County. Sills’ firm alone has close to 200 cases pending.

Ceresia’s 41-page decision, dated Feb. 18, deals with just one of the half-dozen cases he heard, that of a Watervliet man with three DWI-related convictions from 2002 to 2007.

Sills said Friday he planned to appeal the decision to the Appellate Division.

Ceresia’s office indicated the judge would be handing down separate decisions for the other five cases.

The new DMV regulations, known as Part 136, characterize anyone with five or more alcohol/drugged driving convictions in their lifetime as a “persistently dangerous driver” who never will be licensed again in New York.

Permanent license denial also is mandated for drivers who, in the last 25 years, accumulated three or four alcohol/drugged driving convictions and at least one “serious driving offense,” such as a fatal accident.

Some repeat offenders might be granted a restricted driver’s license at the DMV’s discretion, but they would be required to install on their cars ignition interlock devices that test the driver for alcohol before letting him start the engine.

In his decision, Ceresia found the regulations “compatible and in keeping with the Legislature’s delegation of authority as set forth in the vehicle and traffic law, and … adopted in the interest of public safety and welfare.” Where the regulations seem more onerous than existing Vehicle and Traffic Law, such as the 25-year look-back period or lifetime driving record review, Ceresia said they still fall within “the broad delegation of authority” given to the DMV commissioner to decide who should be licensed.

“In the court’s view, nothing within the vehicle and traffic law prohibits the commissioner from imposing additional requirements upon an applicant seeking to regain his or her license after multiple alcohol- or drug-related convictions,” he said.

As to whether the DMV stepped into legislative territory by making law rather than enforcing it, Ceresia said he used as a guide the landmark 1987 Court of Appeals decision Boreli v. Axelrod on the constitutional separation of powers.

“Under all of the circumstances [outlined in Boreli], the court finds that the adoption of Part 136 did not overstep the line between administrative rule-making and legislative policy-making,” he said.

The judge also determined that the regulations did not violate any constitutional ex-post facto clause on retroactivity, as alleged in the Watervliet man’s lawsuit. An affidavit from a DMV lawyer indicated the regulations were written in response to data showing a disproportionate number of injury accidents caused by repeat DWI offenders, the judge noted.

“It appears that the purpose of Part 136 is to protect the public safety and welfare, not to impose punitive sanctions,” Ceresia said. And it is “well-established that laws or regulations are not retroactive where they apply to future transactions merely because that will require consideration of antecedent events,” he said.

No one’s due-process rights were breached by the regulations because while the “right to free movement” within the United States is protected, the Constitution “does not recognize a fundamental ‘right to drive,’ ” Ceresia said in dismissing the lawsuit.

 
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