As state Rep. Ben Harbin heads to an Atlanta court later this month to answer to charges related to his May 2007 DUI arrest, some might speculate that he used political clout or unethical means to retain his driving privileges in the 15-month interim.
Legal and law-enforcement officials say that isn’t the case.
“I don’t think Ben Harbin did anything sneaky,” Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Scott Gay said. “I think that is just somebody looking for something that isn’t there.”
Harbin requested an Administrative License Suspension hearing that nearly 12,000 other people charged with driving under the influence also asked for last year, said Lois Oakley, the chief judge of the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings, which oversees and holds the monthly hearings statewide.
“So he’s in good company,” Oakley said.
An average of 15 Columbia County drivers request the hearings each month.
“This is a case type that we see a great deal of, and my review of the case file would indicate it looks just like every other case file,” she said.
When a driver is stopped by police on suspicion of driving under the influence, police ask the driver to take a breath or blood test.
Police send a notice to the Department of Driver Services requesting a license suspension for drivers who refuse the tests or test higher than a .08 blood alcohol content, the state legal limit.
Those drivers have 10 days to request a suspension hearing to retain driving rights until the criminal charges are resolved in the court system.
“Most people who are intoxicated, you hand them that piece of paper and they don’t read it,” said Gay, a former member of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office DUI Task Force.
“They have 10 days to request a hearing. If they don’t do it within that time line, then they are not entitled to that hearing, so it is an automatic suspension.”
At the hearings, an administrative judge decides who receives their driving privileges until the DUI charge is handled.
Drivers can request that the officer withdraw the request for suspension. The suspension is usually upheld if the driver does not attend, and the suspension is typically rescinded if the arresting officer doesn’t attend.
Harbin’s license suspension was reversed because the arresting officer was not at the hearing.
There were 70 cases scheduled for the most recent session of such hearings in the area. During those hearings, which included DUI cases in Columbia, Richmond and six other counties, 13 drivers regained their driving privileges because the arresting officer did not attend.
More than 30 drivers retained their driving privileges because the officer withdrew the request for suspension.
Oakley said her office doesn’t keep track of case data, including the specific result of each case or the number of officers who show up for the hearings.
“One size does not fit all. Every case has its own nuance,” Oakley said. “It is very difficult and, in fact, inaccurate to try to categorize disposition types and case types. For that reason, we don’t keep data on how many cases are decided in this manner versus another manner.”
Columbia County sheriff’s deputies are urged to take the hearing notices seriously and attend.
“They are treated in much the same way as subpoenas,” Capt. Steve Morris said.
Columbia County deputies are required to appear at the hearings unless a conflict prevents it. In that case, deputies must notify the court and other appropriate parties. Morris said there hasn’t been a problem of deputies missing hearings.
If deputies “refuse to attend, then disciplinary action will be taken,” Morris said.
Gay said the majority of ALS hearings are attended by members of the Richmond County sheriff’s DUI Task Force, but notices also are treated like subpoenas.
“It is a working day. That’s why we have so many people there,” Gay said of the reliable attendance by deputies.
Gay said his department is working to ensure that deputies get paid while attending the hearings, even if they are on vacation or otherwise off duty.
As in Columbia County, Gay said Richmond County deputies who simply do not show up for the hearings face disciplinary action.
Columbia County GA Times