Court of Appeals Upholds DMV Regulations Barring Recidivist DWI Offenders from Getting Licenses Back

When the first few lines of an opinion begin like this, you pretty much know how it will end.

In Matter of Acevedo v New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (Nos. 40, 41, and 42), the Court of Appeals rejected three challenges brought by recidivist drunk drivers to new regulations adopted by the DMV that foreclosed them from getting back their licenses. In Acevedo, the petitioner had three DWI convictions in five years; in Carney, it was six; and in Matsen, three DWIs with two separate six-point speeding violations. The petitioners applied to the DMV for relicensure after their mandatory revocation periods ended, but the DMV denied the applications based on new recidivist DWI regulations that were adopted while petitioners’ applications were pending.  

Specifically, the DMV regulations provided:

So, because Carney had six convictions, he was permanently barred from getting a license under section 136.5(b)(1).  Matsen was also permanently barred under section 136.5(b)(2) because she had three DWIs and a serious driving offense (the two speeding violations). And Acevedo was denied for an additional five-year period under section 136.5(b)(3). They challenged the denials, arguing that the DMV regulations exceeded the agency’s authority and impermissibly stepped on the toes of the legislative process, that the regulations conflicted with the Vehicle and Traffic Law, and that they were improperly applied retroactively.

The Court of Appeals first rejected the petitioners’ premise that the VTL somehow entitled them to get their licenses back after their revocation periods ended.  Not so, the Court held. The VTL only specifies a minimum revocation period after a DWI offense and affords the DMV Commissioner extensive discretion to determine relicensure applications after that.  Particularly, the Court noted, 

The Court certainly was not going to sanction an interpretation of the VTL that forced the DMV to give licenses back to the most dangerous drivers. Thus, the Court held that the regulations did not conflict with the VTL.

The Court also rejected the petitioners’ separation of powers argument.  Noting that the broad grant of authority to the DMV in relicensure decisions, the Court held that the four Boreali v Axelrod (71 NY2d 1 [1987]) factors weighed against a separation of powers violation: (1) the purpose of the regulations to protect the public from drunk drivers was a value judgment made by the Legislature, not the DMV; (2) the DMV regulations merely filled in the details of the Legislature’s statutory scheme regulating drunk driving and when offenders may apply to get their licenses back; (3) over the 40-plus years of the drunk driving statutes, the Legislature has consistently left intact the DMV Commissioner’s discretion to determine relicensure applications; and (4) by targeting the highest risk DWI recidivists, the DMV Commissioner used the agency’s extensive expertise in the area to promulgate the new regulations. All in all, the Court held, the DMV acted well within its authority to adopt the new DWI recidivist regulations.

Finally, the Court rejected the petitioners’ claims that the regulations could not be applied retroactively to deny their relicensure applications.  Instead, the Court held, the regulations were not retroactive at all because they applied to the Commissioner’s determination of pending applications. The Commissioner’s mere consideration of past acts when making that determination did not make the regulations retroactive.

This decision is unsurprising. The Court was unlikely to upset the DMV’s broad discretion to regulate licensure, especially when drunk driving is concerned.  So, the moral of the story is, if you want to keep your license, don’t drink and drive.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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