Court Spells Out Speedy Trial Directives
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on March 7, 2017 handed down directives intended to end long delays between DUI arrests and administrative drivers license revocation hearings. To avoid having its decisions reversed for speedy trial violations, DPS should now schedule revocation hearings within 60 days after a driver requests a hearing.
The court set out the new speedy trial guidelines in a decision that reinstated the driving privileges of a man whose revocation hearing was delayed 16 months after his DUI arrest. DPS had further delayed the process by waiting four months to notify the driver his license would be revoked.
The directives reflect the court’s second recent effort to establish speedy trial guidelines in DUI revocation proceedings. Nichols v. State, 2017 OK 20, adds detail to 2014 decision that set out “the controlling principles to use in determining whether the State has violated a driver’s constitutional right to a speedy trial in a license revocation cause.”
In the prior case – Pierce v. State 2014 OK 37 – the Oklahoma Supreme Court provided a four-prong test for weighing speedy trial allegations in revocation hearings. The Oklahoma court relied on a U.S. Supreme Court case – Doggett v. U.S. 505 US 647 (1992), which in turn relied on a series of previous federal speedy trial decisions.
The Doggett court found several ways defendants can be harmed by delays between accusation and trial, including emotional distress and impaired capacity to put on an effective defense. Under Oklahoma’s new Pierce test, when deciding whether to dismiss revocation hearings for speedy trial violations, courts should consider:
- the length of the delay,
- the reason for the delay,
- whether the defendant asserted a right to speedy trial, and
- prejudice to the defendant whose hearing was delayed.
Pierce also established that DPS staffing and budgetary limitations are no excuse to deny defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Pierce court implied a low bar for determining when prejudice results from delays.
“Limbo serves no one well when a property interest hangs in the balance,” the Nichols court wrote. The court in 1986 determined that a drivers license is a property interest that can only be taken away after due process of law. Price v. Reed 1986 OK 43.
In a case where a driver waited two years for a revocation decision, “…the potential loss of a property interest is sufficient to meet this prong of the four-part test of deprivation of the right to a speedy trial,” the Pierce court wrote.
In prior actions leading to the Nichols decision, Rogers County District Court had relied on Pierce to reverse DPS’ revocation of defendant Nathan D. Nichols’ license. The district court noted that DPS had sufficient evidence to put on a hearing – comprising test results from blood samples taken after Nichols’ arrest – for more than a year before it set a hearing.
Hearings Must Be Held Within 60 Days
When DPS appealed the lower court’s decision, the Court of Civil Appeals nodded to Pierce, but sided with DPS. The appeals court noted that Nichols had “suffered some prejudice” because his driving privileges hung in limbo several months before the administrative hearing but, with little explanation, concluded the prejudice was insufficient and delay too short to overrule the DPS revocation.
Nichols v DPS Timeline
- Jan. 18, 2014 – DPS issues notice of revocation to driver
- Jan. 18, 2014 – Driver again requests administrative drivers license revocation hearing
- Feb. 17, 2014 – DPS drivers license revocation scheduled to take effect
- Feb. 17, 2014 – Driver submits third request for administrative drivers license revocation hearing
- Sept. 16, 2014 – DPS held administrative drivers license revocation hearing
- Oct. 14, 2014 – Driver received copy of administrative order sustaining drivers license revocation
- Dec. 16, 2014 – District court reverses revocation after driver argues speedy trial violation
- July 29, 2016 – Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals reverses district court, upholds revocation
- March 7, 2017 – Oklahoma Supreme Court reverse appeals court, orders drivers license reinstated.
By then, 38 months had passed since Nichols had been arrested. Because of delays before his hearing, then his appeal related to the delays, his license had still not been revoked. The civil appeals court accepted DPS’ argument that Nichols’ hearing had only been delayed seven months – the time between a Feb. 17, 2014 revocation notice and a hearing in September, 2014.
Results of his blood tests taken at the time of his 2013 arrest indicated Nichols was in fact driving under the influence as charged, the Oklahoma Supreme Court noted. As soon as four months after he was arrested, DPS had what it needed to revoke his license – if only the agency would have held a hearing.
“Neither the driver here, nor the operator in Pierce suffered actual suspensions when facts indicate revocations would have occurred had constitutional violations not been in play,” the Nichols court lamented.
In response to chronic delays that deprive drivers of constitutional rights while letting potentially dangerous motorists continue to drive drunk, the court established directives for notice and hearings in Oklahoma DUI drivers license revocations. The directives protect drivers’ rights to a speedy trial and will ensure that driving under the influence laws accomplish what they are intended to do, the decisions states.
The new directives “will remove those choosing to drive impaired off our city streets and state highways in a timely manner,” Justice Joseph Watt wrote in the unanimous decision. (Justices James Winchester and Yvonne Kauger concurred only with the result, Winchester for reason of stare decisis. Justice Patrick Wyrick was not present and did not participate in the decision.)
Under the new parameters, DPS should notify drivers within 10 days of receiving blood test results when an arresting officer will be available to testify at a revocation hearing. Revocation actions based on blood test results, rather than breathalyzer results, have a potential to drag on longer as DPS waits for lab results, them must locate witnesses and send revocation notices. With breathlyzer results, drivers are usually notified at the time of their arrest that DPS intends to revoke their license.
After DPS receives notice that a driver intends to appeal the automatic revocation provided by state law when test results indicate unlawful blood alcohol content, DPS should then hold a hearing within 60 days, the Oklahoma court decided.
Court Closes DPS’ Time-Out Loophole
In addition to cutting delays after a driver requests a hearing, the parameters close a loophole DPS had used to stop the clock on speedy trial complaints. The agency had cut the appearance of delay by putting the process on bureaucratic time-out before it issued a notice of revocation.
In Nichols’ case, DPS waited more than four months after receiving test results to notify Nichols that his license would be revoked. The agency then argued that those delays – seven and eight months after Nichols submitted his second and third requests for a hearing — did not violate constitutional requirements for a speedy trial.
The court chafed at DPS’ sleight of hand. The agency cannot stop the speedy trial clock by withholding notice of a revocation then start the clock by releasing notice at its leisure, the court scolded.
The State “cannot artificially control the date from which a speedy trial claim will be calculated, by delaying notice of revocation, where it is in possession of all evidence necessary to proceed with revocation hearings,” the court stated.
The directives left ample room for the kind of delays that normally do not count against the State. When a witness is not available to testify, and when DPS must wait for lab results, the delay does not count against the State’s speedy trial deadline.
Thousands of Revocation Hearings Pending
Although the case could provide DPS a reliable blueprint for avoiding speedy trial violations in future revocation hearings, such a result not certain. DPS complaints of budgetary and staffing constraints are probably not sleight of hand. Oklahoma legislators in 2016 wrestled with a $1.3 billion budgetary shortfall. Budget constraints were so severe, Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers were instructed to limit daily driving to keep expenses down. Meanwhile, requests for revocation hearings piled up.
DPS argued it simply does not have the staff required to keep up with hearings. In 2015, according a report in The Oklahoman, drivers requested hearings in 13,144 DUI arrests, but DPS set only 3,064 hearings that year.
Budgets and staffing shortfalls would seem to be only part of the reason for delays. DPS is reeling from several years of legal challenges that negated various revocation actions. Rather than simply dismiss all revocation actions that fit patterns the state’s highest civil court found unconstitutional in similar cases, DPS left many of those cases on the docket, often challenging each case unless and until a district court applies the new precedent to each case.
The backlog started after the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals in 2013 found DUI revocation affidavits used by Oklahoma police officers to be legally insufficient. In 2014, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed a DPS revocation because the agency had adopted no valid maintenance procedures for the Intoxilyzer 800 breathalyzer. Criminal defense attorneys in Oklahoma began to advise most drivers to request a hearing if they have received notice of a pending drivers license revocation. The backlog of cases grew.
In 2016, the civil appeals court reversed three of the four speedy trial revocation cases it heard. The appeals court sided with DPS against Nichols, however, based on reasoning that his hearing was delayed only seven months rather than a year-long delay as the higher court would later explain. The growing backlog snowballed, driven by several district and appeals court decisions to reverse cases on speedy trial arguments.
Although staffing shortages almost certainly contribute to the backlog, it remains an open question whether DPS is prepared to move forward with hearings in cases involving breathalyzer results. Unlike the majority of DUI cases, Nichols’ case involved blood test results – not breathalyzer results. And unlike blood tests, when breathalyzer tests are used, results are almodt always available at the time of an arrest.
With thousands of revocation hearings pending, the new speedy trial rules could seem like a win for drivers hoping escape some of the consequences of DUI arrest. If DPS followed the new rules, however, the result would instead mean speedy revocations with much less opportunity for drivers to argue speedy trial violations. If DPS would dismiss those revocations where hearings have not been scheduled within 60 days of a request, it could devote attention to those potentially more winnable revocation cases that remained on the administrative hearing docket.
The problem, for DPS, is that it continues to lose on several fronts. The Oklahoma Supreme Court in Sept. 2016 let stand a lower court decision that overturned some of the Oklahoma administrative rules for breathalyzer tests DPS relies on to revoke drivers licenses. Those rules had not been lawfully promulgated through a process of publication, public comment, legislative review and gubernatorial review as required by Oklahoma law, the court concluded.
Many of the revocation cases currently pending may be affected by that decision. Since DPS is historically reluctant to surrender such cases, DPS is unlikely to systematically dismiss matters cases where it is not likely to win, even when the dismissals could clear hearing schedules and make time for stronger cases to be heard.
DPS has since adopted new rules certifying Intoxilyzer 8000 breathalyzer results as implicitly – and legally – accurate. The new breathalyzer rules have in turn been challenged. As long as DPS has no legally defensible breathalyzer system upon which to base revocation cases, its revocation decisions are at risk of being overturned on appeal.
It remains to be seen what affect the Nichols decision will have on potentially thousands of drivers awaiting hearings on license revocations. We would expect revocations in question at any hearing delayed more than 60 days after lab results and witnesses were available would be dismissed. Based on DPS response to prior appellate losses, such an outcome may be unlikely.
It may be more likely DPS will leave the cases on the administrative hearing docket and only back down after each revocation decision is reversed by a district court.
Free Consultation: Tulsa DUI Attorney
If you were arrested for DUI and are awaiting a decision on whether your license will be revoked, contact a Tulsa DUI lawyer to find out if a speedy trial argument might result in dismissal of your revocation proceedings. If it’s been more than 60 days since DPS received blood or breath tests and you have notified DPS that you want a hearing, odds would appear to be in your favor.