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Supreme Court reverses ruling on revoked license of convicted drunk driver

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Supreme Court reversed a lower court's decision that would have let a convicted drunk driver get off without having his driver's license suspended.

The decision written by Justice Margaret Workman and published Friday reversed the decision of Kanawha County Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib, calling Zakaib's interpretation, "Squarely at odds with the purpose of protecting the public."

Zakaib's decision was appealed by acting Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Steven Dale.

The opinion stems from the case of Benjamin M. Knopp, who was arrested for DUI in 2007. State law allows the DMV to revoke a driver's license after they are formally charged with DUI, but prior to trial. Knopp requested a hearing when he was notified that his driver's license would be revoked.

The revocation was put on hold, pending the hearing.

When the police officer who arrested Knopp did not show up at the hearing, his driver's license was restored, the decision says.

Knopp pleaded guilty to the DUI 11 days later. The Magistrate Court Clerk forwarded the paperwork on the DUI conviction to the DMV, which entered another order revoking Knopp's driver's license. Knopp said he never received that revocation notice.

Four years later, Knopp learned his license had been revoked when he was stopped for an alleged traffic violation, the decision states. He challenged the revocation and Zakaib, citing state law, ruled that the DMV could not revoke Knopp's license a second time for the same offense.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision and said Zakaib's ruling did not properly interpret the state's DUI statutes.

The decision hinged on a technical distinction.

The Court agreed with the lower court that Knopp's license could not be revoked twice, but it found that Knopp's license was never actually revoked the first time. When the officer didn't show up at the hearing, the initial order to revoke Knopp's license was rescinded before it could take affect, the Court found.

Since the license was never revoked for any significant amount of time, the DMV was free to revoke Knopp's license following his conviction.

The Court wrote that pre-trial license revocation should not be looked at as punishment, but as a necessary step to protect public safety.

"The purpose of the administrative sanction of license revocation is the removal of persons who drive under the influence of alcohol and other intoxicants from our highways," the Court said, quoting an earlier decision. "The revocation provisions are not penal in nature, and should be read in accord with the general intent of our traffic laws to protect the innocent public." Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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