No License Revocation for West Virginia Man Driving on Morphine – Reed v. Starcher

State law authorizes the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles to revoke a person’s driver’s license for drunk driving or operating a vehicle while impaired by a controlled substance. In order to support a license revocation, the DMV has to provide enough evidence to show that the driver was drunk or under the influence of drugs. That raises a number of tricky issues in cases where the driver is using medication prescribed by a doctor, as a recent case out of the state Supreme Court shows.

light-2-1573545Mr. Starcher was arrested in July 2011, following an incident at a daycare facility where he had dropped off his daughter for a supervised visitation with her mother. Daycare center staff called the police, telling the cops that Starcher was acting erratically and creating a disturbance. Officers who arrived on the scene later said that Starcher’s speech was slurred, he was unsteady on his feet, and his pupils were dilated. An officer administered a number of field sobriety tests, each of which he said Starcher failed. Starcher then informed the officers that he had taken several prescribed medications, including morphine, within a few hours of his driving to the daycare. The West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles revoked his driver’s license for driving under the influence of controlled substances.

The state Office of Administrative Hearings later rescinded the revocation, however, finding that the DMV didn’t present sufficient evidence to show that Starcher had been driving while impaired. Relying on testimony from Starcher and a letter from his doctor, the hearing officer said Starcher was likely unsteady on his feet and failed the sobriety tests because of a significant back injury that he had been coping with and that his speech appeared slurred because he was upset and typically speaks with a heavy drawl. Even the arresting officer agreed that Starcher’s use of morphine could have been the cause for his dilated pupils. The evidence was not enough, the Court said, to prove that Starcher had ingested enough morphine to be impaired. A circuit court affirmed the decision.

Affirming the decision on further appeal, the state Supreme Court said there was no reason to believe that the hearing officer was clearly wrong in finding that the evidence didn’t support the license revocation. The Court cited its 1995 decision in Modi v. West Virginia Board of Medicine to explain that a hearing officer’s decision generally won’t be disturbed on appeal unless it’s contrary to the facts or based on a mistake in interpreting the law. “In consideration of the unique facts before us, and mindful of the exclusive role of the hearing examiner in recording observations and making credibility determinations, we find that the administrative findings are supported by sufficient evidence,” the Court said.

If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence, the West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our firm has been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

West Virginia DUI Cases Often Hinge on ‘Reasonable Suspicion’ – Reed v. Littleton

How Much Evidence is Enough to Prove DUI? West Virginia High Court Weighs In – Reed v. Hill

Drunk Driver who Posed as Brother Hit with Identity Theft Charges – State v. Soustek