The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled it's unconstitutional to revoke the driver's licenses of minors cited for drinking alcohol unless the state follows the due process required in criminal prosecutions.
The 4-0 decision means the state, if it pursues license revocations, must provide public defenders for minors who need them. That's a potentially expensive proposition, said Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general.
Even though minor consuming recently has been a non-jailable violation and not an actual crime, minors also would be entitled to a jury trial under the court's ruling.
"It throws into at least temporary disarray a fairly important state program that keeps minors from drinking," Guaneli said today.
The Supreme Court's ruling, issued Friday, upholds a decision by Superior Court Judge Eric T. Sanders of Anchorage, which was appealed by the state. The case, known as State of Alaska, Department of Public Safety, Division of Motor Vehicles v. Patrick Niedermeyer, involves an arrest for underage consumption of alcohol on July 4, 1995. The minor's license was suspended automatically upon his arrest, even though "there was never any allegation that Niedermeyer had previously driven after consuming alcohol or intended to drive on the evening of his arrest," according to the court's opinion, written by Justice Alexander Bryner.
This tenuous connection between consumption of alcohol and general fitness to drive makes license revocation punitive rather than remedial, according to the opinion. While Bryner acknowledged a statistical link between underage drinking and careless drinking, he concluded: "Naked numbers cannot predict the conduct of any individual driver; they do not address the specific circumstances of Niedermeyer's case; and they say nothing concerning his personal driving behavior."
Therefore, administrative license revocation is "criminal punishment without criminal process," Bryner wrote.
"It certainly comports with what I've always thought," Juneau criminal defense attorney David Mallet said when informed of the Supreme Court's decision.
Asked what he would advise the state to do now about minors' consuming alcohol, Mallet said: "Legalize it and educate them. Other countries think we're uneducated about that."
Guaneli of the Department of Law said the administration "is still developing its position on how it's going to respond." License revocations that have been appealed now won't go into effect, although other revocations stand, he said. Fines imposed under the minor consuming law are still valid, he noted.
Matthew Felix, director of the Juneau office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said he would encourage legislators to find a way to "tweak" the law so that administrative license revocations could continue.
"The ownership of a driver's license is a great incentive to change behavior," Felix said. "I think the goal was noble. I think it's sad if there's an obstruction to that goal."
Alaska's law was based on an Oregon statute from about 15 years ago that never has been challenged successfully in courts there, he said.
The Alaska Supreme Court opinion noted the court deadlocked 2-2 last year on what it called a "similar case," in which a different Superior Court judge found the administrative license revocation unconstitutional. Friday's opinion is silent on what matters of fact or law persuaded two justices to change their votes in deciding the Niedermeyer case. Guaneli said there is nothing substantively different between the two cases.
Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican recently named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he already was considering changes to the minor consuming law, about which he has mixed feelings. The law has resulted in license revocations even for designated drivers who haven't been drinking, and in some cases "a bad run of luck" has left people without a license into their late 20s, he said.
But there is "merit to the concept," Rokeberg said. "This (court decision) puts an entirely different complexion on the issue. Basically, it destroys the 'use it and lose it' concept of teaching our youth to act responsibly."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.