By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
FEW GOVERNMENT AGENCIES ARE as unpopular as the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for long lines and stiff fees, and now a bunch of hard-partying Californians have faced down the DMV in the California Courts of Appeal over the issue of drunk boating — and won.
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Drunken boaters have rights too, the Courts of Appeal ruled, and the DMV violated those rights by suspending the boaters’ driver’s licenses and now must face the boaters — potentially thousands of Californians — in the courtroom.
In essence, the DMV created its own law without the say-so of state legislators, quietly yanking driver’s licenses from 150 to 200 Californians annually — for more than a decade — before being called out by the lawyers for two Los Angeles County boaters.
Evidence at a preliminary injunction hearing, as well as arguments before the Court of Appeal Second Appellate District Division, revealed that, since the early 1990s, the DMV has been handling drunken boating convictions like drunken driving, suspending driver’s licenses for “boating under the influence” — or BUI, a misdemeanor.
Funny thing is, though, there’s no such law allowing the DMV to play God with BUI offenders’ car-driving privileges.
The DMV’s decade-long practice only came to light in 2005 after 37-year-old Montebello native Ronnie Cinquegrani lost his driver’s license after he pled guilty to knocking back a few screwdrivers and then driving a Sea-Doo boat on the Colorado River in San Bernardino County that June.
Cinquegrani admitted he’d been drinking at a local watering hole before he piloted a friend’s boat, accompanied by his wife and young kids, to help another friend who’d fallen off his Jet Ski into the river. An officer patrolling the river pulled him over, and Cinquegrani copped to having been drinking. He failed a breathalyzer test, blowing a whopping .18 — twice the legal limit.
Panicked by the thought of being arrested in front of his kids, Cinquegrani dove into the river, swam to shore and hid in some bushes. Unimpressed by his antics, the cops caught up with the Montebello general contractor and assured him they wouldn’t press additional charges if he gave himself up. “I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” recalls Cinquegrani. “I am here with my family and friends.”
He spent the night in jail, and, in a touch of irony, was released on Father’s Day. He got 36 months’ probation, and was ordered to pay a $1,439 fine and attend a “boating-safety” class.
He thought that was the end of it.
Cinquegrani wasn’t that upset — he knew he was in the wrong — but his attitude changed on September 8, when the DMV notified him that his driver’s license had been suspended — for a staggering two years.
“I was really embarrassed about telling my attorney,” he says. “[But] I said, ‘I can’t risk driving around on a suspended license.’ I pick my kids up from school.” His attorney recommended that he contact Santa Monica criminal defense attorney Josh Needle.
“They booked me in Needles,” Cinquegrani adds lightheartedly. “I ended up getting an attorney named Needle.”
On October 23, Needle contacted the DMV’s Mandatory Actions office to complain that the DMV had no legal right to take away Cinquegrani’s driver’s license. Strangely enough, there was no fuss. A DMV employee immediately set aside the “order of suspension,” Needle recalls, and Cinquegrani’s driver’s license was reinstated.
According to Needle, DMV computers have been programmed since 1992 to automatically suspend car licenses of those hit with a drunk-boating conviction. But, seeming to understand that they were doing something off the books, DMV officials were setting aside driver’s-license suspensions if the motorist or lawyer challenged the suspension.
It became clear that drunken boaters who complained got their driver’s licenses back — and those who did not complain could no longer drive a car — for a month, or, in some cases, for years.
Says Needle, “I realized that they must have been challenged on this before and knew that the suspensions were erroneous, which led me to wonder, ‘How many other people have they done this to?’”
SINCE THE DISPUTE ERUPTED, DMV bureaucrats have been peddling the dubious idea that the agency — with 8,166 employees and an annual budget of roughly $1 billion — doesn’t have the resources to alter the computer program that, apparently even now, is automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of Californians convicted of drunk boating.
Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney last year issued a preliminary injunction blocking the DMV from further suspensions. She also set aside the DMV’s past BUI-related license suspensions. “I really don’t think that the Department of Motor Vehicles has the authority to do what they’re doing, and when you look at my background, which is working for government entities almost my entire life, that’s quite a statement,” Chaney lectured the DMV, which was represented in court by the office of Attorney General Jerry Brown. “You are asking me to say, in essence, it’s okay for you to go — to violate people’s rights.”