ALR Hearings in DWI Cases: Is the “Sun Setting” on These in the Near Future?

According to the website for the Sunset Advisory Commission, the agency was created to identify and eliminate waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies. Here is a brief summary from that same website as to the agency’s purpose:

The Commission questions the need for each agency, looks for potential duplication of other public services or programs, and considers new and innovative changes to improve each agency’s operations and activities. The Commission seeks public input through hearings on every agency under Sunset review and recommends actions on each agency to the full Legislature. In most cases, agencies under Sunset review are automatically abolished unless legislation is enacted to continue them.

One of the agenices currently being targeted for reform is the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).  This is the agency responsible for managing the driver’s license suspension hearings that must be requested within fifteen (15) days of a person’s arrest for Driving while Intoxicated (DWI).

I wanted to directly quote some of the text from the most recent issue dated in October, 2008, however, it is protected and does not allow that function.  Thus, I have re-created the information below as a quotation, however a PDF of the Report is available:

The Administrative Hearing Process for Suspending Drivers’ Licenses of Individuals Arrested for DWI Wastes Government Resources.

  1. Require hearings to be held by telephone and allow witnesses to testify by telephone, unless the Judge finds that the fair administration of justice requires an in-person hearing.
  2. Require affidavits of breath test operators and supervisors to be admissible without the witnesses’ appearance unless the judge finds that justice requires their presence.
  3. Require the defense to subpoena breath test operators and supervisors rather than merely "requesting" them.

Reading through this article, you will find that the Sunset Commission believes it further wastes government resources because of the overtime and expense the officers incur as a result of their presence.  However, there is no monetary expense to the officers as they are given a check that pays for their mileage to and from the hearing location.  Yes, there may be overtime that the officers are paid but that is justified by the additional work they are putting in.  While the Sunset report suggests that this is taking officers away from the street that is really no different than when they are summoned to court to provide testimony in cases that they filed.

As to the recommendation about having hearings by telephone, that troubles me for a number of reasons:

  1. Possible technical difficulties that could lead to an automatic suspension;
  2. Uncertainty of the person testifying (anyone could substitute, even if forbidden); and
  3. Inability to observe body language and other non-verbal communications that could lead to additional questions regarding the matter (possibly relating to bias, etc.).

Lastly, the Sunset Commision acknowledged that telephone conferencing costs would increase but they did not provide any numbers in that realm.  Who knows, this may overshadow the costs of having live, in-person hearings, especially since the Defense reimburses officers for their travel expense.

And of course, the easiest way to reduce the number of ALR hearings and save money is to properly train officers such that only "good arrests" are made.  According to information in the Sunset report, 8% of the cases did not receive a license suspension because of insufficient evidence.  Another 18% were dismissed.  And, 74% resulted in license suspensions… so the overall goal of the ALR process as set out in the report is being attained in almost 3/4 of all cases!

Again, this is just another example of allowing the rights of those accused of crimes to errode and to be diminished if the Texas Legislature adopts these changes.  If this attitude and methodology are not reduced soon, the only rights remaining will be to do exactly what a cop says, when a cop says, and how a cop says… and then we might as well toss out the Constitution because it seems to mean less and less.