CHARLESTON -- People who plead no contest to drunken driving charges still will automatically lose their licenses, despite efforts by some lawmakers to change that policy.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles will maintain its current practice of automatically revoking driving privileges when people plead no contest in drunken driving cases.

The state Legislature had battled over a bill that would have allowed those drivers to get administrative hearings before the state and a chance to hold on to their driver's licenses.

That bill failed to pass in the final hours of this year's legislative session, but legislators had already slid a similar provision into a general transportation rules bill, an attempt by some to get the policy changed anyway and give some accused drivers a chance to hold onto to their licenses.

Rules bills typically are written to tell agencies how to administer policies and laws spelled out in statute.

DMV officials, who had long opposed the policy change, say the rules change won't cut it, and if lawmakers want the law reversed they'll have to pass a bill clearly stating that hearings are required in no contest pleas.

Other regulations spelled out in the transportation rules bill kicked in May 1, but the agency's policy on no contest pleas in drunken driving cases has remained unchanged.

"That one provision will not take affect," said Steve Dale, assistant to the DMV commissioner. "It requires a change to the statute and there has not been one. Until that bill passes and the statute changes, the DMV will continue to treat the no contest pleas as convictions for the purpose of license revocations."

DMV officials had argued that changing the law would give too many dangerous drivers, perhaps several thousand each year, an opportunity to remain on the road.

Lawmakers who supported the bill said it would level the playing field for people who plead no contest to such charges. In most cases, a no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, but it can have the same punitive effects as conviction in a court of law.

House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming, said today the DMV's decision could have serious legal repercussion.

"I think even if they disagree with the policy, they are approaching it wrong," said Staton, a sponsor of the bill. "I think they're opening themselves up to legal action by not following what the Legislature set out. If somebody is in that situation and pleads no contest, then they could challenge and say the DMV is not following the law by not giving them a hearing."

Staton and his colleagues have argued that in other court cases, such as medical malpractice disputes, defendants who plead no contest to a charge don't automatically lose their licenses to practice medicine or operate a business.

The bill to give some accused drunken drivers that same opportunity was co-sponsored by attorneys and leaders in the House of Delegates, including Staton, Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores and Carrie Webster, both D-Kanawha. It also had strong support from Senate leaders.

The bill passed both bodies during the final day of this year's legislative session, but a last-minute change to the bill's title required yet another vote by the Senate. The bill apparently was lost in the shuffle and no final vote took place.

Many lawmakers said they were unaware a similar policy change was included in the transportation rules bill until after they had voted for it.

Since that vote in March, DMV attorneys have been studying whether the agency should start holding administrative hearings in no contest cases.

Until about two years ago, the DMV did offer administrative hearings when people pleaded no contest to driving drunk. Then the Supreme Court ruled a no contest plea in such a case should be treated just like a conviction, and the driver could automatically lose his or her license.

Dale said DMV officials have not talked to legislators about their decision to keep the policy intact.

Staton said he expects the Legislature will take up the issue again in an upcoming special session and try to get the statute changed.

"I think especially if they are not going to enforce it and you're going to get bogged down in court challenges, you'll see the bill again," Staton said.

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