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.

Aaron Farmer

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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.”

The Attorney General’s office insists that it would take the DMV 671 hours to rewrite several programs to stop the computers from automatically suspending licenses, plus hundreds more hours to research and set aside what are believed to be thousands of past suspensions. Deputy Attorney General Jennie Kelly told Chaney that this “diversion of manpower” could shift programmers away from an important project to implement a statute involving the federal highways — and such a delay could “potentially cost the state of California millions of dollars” in lost federal highway funds.

That convoluted argument — that a huge department employing 75 computer programmers couldn’t spare any — left one of Cinquegrani’s attorneys, Paul Hoffman, incredulous. He scoffed: “This is a trivial administrative cost in the context of a DMV that has enormous resources. You’re talking about maybe a cost of $30,000 or $40,000 — max.”

But Deputy A.G. Kelly insisted that Judge Chaney did not understand “the amount of resources that [Chaney’s] injunction is going to take away from the DMV.” Until this week, Chaney’s injunction had not taken effect because the agency appealed. And then DMV bureaucrats had about a month to comply after the appellate judges on June 3 upheld Chaney’s order, ruling that “boating offenses have their own punishment scheme” and “the agency is imposing an unauthorized punishment on the public.”

But finally this week, on June 24, the DMV agreed to comply, announcing that although it is considering appealing to the California Supreme Court, it will “comply with the injunctive order as soon as possible.” According to Needle, DMV officials say they are trying to change the computer code and are working to manually stop new suspensions. He has demanded that DMV immediately notify all Californians with current BUI suspensions that the action is void — and they are free to drive.

Now, Needle and Hoffman are pursuing a class-action suit representing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of drunk boaters versus the state of California. Considering how many Californians lost their jobs or suffered other severe outcomes while trying to negotiate life without their cars, the suit could mean a pricey payout from taxpayers.

Irked boaters who might join the class action could include people like Roy Thomassen, a computer systems specialist who was pulled over by the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department on August 18, 2007, while boating on Lake Nacimiento near Paso Robles with his 12-pound Chihuahua, Sophie. “[The cops] said I cut someone off,” he told the Weekly, “and [the cops] didn’t appreciate that I busted out laughing. I felt totally sober, and they decided I was hammered.”

After failing a breathalyzer test, Thomassen was taken away in his bathing trunks and spent the night in jail. Marina personnel took in his co-pilot, Sophie, for the night. Still bothered over his night in jail, he told the Weekly, “I got to sit around with Officer Pot Belly and his butt boy.”

Thomassen pleaded no contest to the BUI conviction, was fined $1,750, placed on three years’ probation, and was required to complete a program for first-time offenders created for vehicle DUI offenders, not boaters. Three weeks later, he received notification that his car license had been suspended.

It turned out to be a very costly misdemeanor. Thomassen was working as a computer specialist with a school district in Paso Robles and regularly had to drive to the district’s 17 school sites. The license suspension put the kibosh on that. He was asked to resign last October 15, after school officials were notified that his license had been suspended.

“Effectively, I was punished like I was driving under the influence,” he said. “My insurance went up considerably.”

Now, Thomassen might be out of a job again. His new employer is having difficulty securing insurance to let him drive a company car. “They pretty much screwed up my life,” he says of the DMV. “They just decided to interpret the books the way they wanted to.”

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