A person’s driver’s license can be suspended or revoked for numerous reasons in Washington. Depending on the type of suspension, the person may be eligible for an Ignition Interlock License or some other restricted driver’s license. While the law requires a person to be notified that there license is suspended, depending on the situation, it can be difficult to determine whether a person’s license is valid or not. Fortunately, the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) has a handy online tool where a driver can check the status of their license in real time.
While this online tool is helpful, during my career as a criminal defense attorney, I have learned that this tool is not always accurate and sometimes displays false information. For instance, I recently had a client whose license was suspended but believed they had obtained a valid Ignition Interlock License. I looked into this client’s situation and confirmed they had done everything that was necessary to obtain this valid license. However, when the client looked up the status of their license at DOL’s online status check, it showed that the client’s Ignition Interlock License was not valid. If this were true, it would mean the client could be arrested for Driving with a License Suspended Second Degree at any moment, have their car impounded, and booked into jail. The client was obviously concerned with whether their license was valid or not.
I contacted DOL who confirmed my client had a valid Ignition Interlock License despite what DOL’s online status check showed. The DOL representative did not have an explanation for why the online feature shows my client’s license was not valid. Moreover, this was not a temporary computer glitch but the false information had been displayed for several months. I asked if police officers (who check the status of a person’s license from their patrol vehicle) would also be provided this false information and the DOL representative responded that law enforcement receives their mobile data from a separate network than the internet based status checks. So in theory, that should not be a problem.
It is concerning that DOL’s driver’s status check is not always accurate. People rely on this feature to determine if they are legal to drive. What if the online status check says a person’s license is valid when in fact it is suspended. That person would rely on that information and drive, only to be arrested by law enforcement who is provided with other information. The lack of accuracy could lead to false arrests and law suits against DOL.
The Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) handles administrative license hearings stemming from several scenarios, including administrative license suspension hearings following DUI arrests. You can read more about these DUI administrative license suspension hearings on my other website. DOL can modify the rules of these DUI administrative license hearings by proposing new rules and taking into consideration comments from the public. Recently, DOL has proposed one such rule of interest to DUI defense attorneys. Currently, when a person arrested for DUI (the petitioner) requests a DUI administrative license suspension hearing, and pays the $375 fee, their case is assigned to one of eighteen DOL hearing examiners. Technically, a DOL hearing examiner does not need to be an attorney, but most are. The petitioner can subpoena the police officer if they want, and submit other evidence. The DOL hearing examiner reads the police report, takes into consideration evidence submitted by the petitioner, makes a written decision, and mails the written decision to the petitioner. The hearing is typically conducted over the telephone. If the petitioner loses the hearing (which is most often the case), the petitioner can appeal the written decision to Superior Court and the Superior Court Judge has the power to either or affirm or overrule the DOL hearing examiner’s decision.
DOL has proposed a new rule, WAC 308-104-350, which would allow anyone to recommend that a DOL hearing examiner’s written decision be deemed a “significant decision.” If a ruling is deemed a significant decision, it would be indexed and made available to the public. The idea being that one could read through the significant decisions and get an idea of how DOL hearing examiners rule on a particular legal issue. None of this part of the rule is particularly controversial. What is more controversial is that under the proposed a new rule, WAC 308-104-350 subsection (7), the significant decisions would be binding authority in any future hearing. In other words, once a significant decision is made and categorized on a particular legal issue by one hearings examiner, that ruling would be binding on all other hearing examiners. The argument against this rule is that if the legal issue is important to your case, you would be stuck with the ruling made by another hearing examiner on a case you are not a party to and did not have a chance to present argue on. Of course, if you believe the significant decision ruling is legally incorrect, you could always lose the DOL hearing and then appeal the matter to Superior Court. If passed, it appears this rule is an attempt by DOL to make it easier for hearing examiners to rule against drivers challenging their administrative license suspension. The rule is currently pending public comment.