San Diego County DMV Hearing Officer Guilty: Accepting DUI Defense Attorneys’ Bribes

In San Diego County, or anywhere in California, if you are arrested for drunk driving, two processes automatically begin.  One is the court process which is handled through the criminal court system and involves criminal charges and penalties.  The other is the administrative process that is handled through the Department of Motor Vehicles, DMV, and involves the suspension of your driving privileges.  [Note: Although the DMV has a separate action regarding your driving privilege, the court may also suspend your privilege to drive if you plead guilty or you are found guilty after a trial of driving under the influence or alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs.]

For many people, the worst and most inconvenient penalty in a DUI case is the inability to drive.  And, if you do not challenge the suspension by requesting a hearing with the DMV within 10 of the arrest date, the DMV will  automatically suspend your driver’s license for four months, or for one month with an additional five months with a restricted driver’s license, allowing you to drive to/from and during the course of your employment and to/from any DUI programs.

The DMV APS Hearings, as they are called, are not held to the court standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.  The standard applied in administrative proceedings is by the preponderance of the evidence.  Because of this low burden on the DMV, and the fact that the hearing officer is in essence the prosecutor and the judge, and they do not even have to be lawyers, it is rare to get the DMV to set aside the suspension.

I was very sad to see recently a San Diego Hearing Officer, Alva Benavidez, plead guilty in federal court to conspiracy to accept brides.  From what was reported, some criminal defense attorneys decided since they have an uphill battle to win these cases, they would resort to bribing the hearing officer.  She was working as a Driver Safety Officer since 2000, and these bribes occurred from 2005 until 2014.  In exchange for set asides, handing out unauthorized temporary licenses, and taking the paperwork before it was entered into the system to prevent the APS action from beginning, she received over $5000 cash, Juicy Couture purses, Ray Ban sunglasses, and gift certificates.

As of the date of this post, it is unknown which criminal defense attorneys were involved, if they will also face criminal charges, or if they will be referred to the California State Bar for an investigation and possible disbarment.  As a member of the California State Bar, practicing criminal defense, specifically in the area of DUI defense, in the very San Diego DMV Drivers Safety Office where this took place, I am extremely frustrated with this information.  Bribing government employees is a felony.  And, by participating in bribes, these defense counselors were able to claim they won APS Hearings that they did not rightfully win.  Some DUI arrestees had to suffer the consequence of losing their license, while others were in a position to pay to have keep theirs.

I will continue to follow this story to see the sentence that is imposed on Alva Benavidez on April 20th, and to hopefully find out which of my fellow colleagues have cheated the system.

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