DMV Ordered to Pay $69,400 in Attorneys Fees for Medical Marijuana Case

December 21, 2009
Merced, CA -- The Merced Superior Court ruled late last week that the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) must pay $69,400 in attorneys fees to Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy organization. The fees award stems from a lawsuit brought by ASA in November 2008 against the DMV for its policy of unjustly revoking drivers' licenses of qualified medical marijuana patients. The suit was filed on behalf of Rose Johnson, a 53-year-old medical marijuana patient from Atwater, whose license was revoked by the DMV because of her status as a patient. The DMV established a formal policy February 2009 to treat medical marijuana like any other prescription drug.

Thursday's ruling by Merced Superior Court found that, "As a result of the Plaintiff's efforts, there was a substantial change in the DMV regarding its policy and behavior in the treatment of medical marijuana," and that, "Administrative Officers were operating under the inaccurate and mistaken belief that medical marijuana use was illegal." Merced Superior Court Judge Brian L. McCabe concluded in his ruling that, "The Plaintiff [appeared] to be the catalyst in effectuating change in both the DMV's formal, public policy on the subject and the agency's adherence to the policy."

"The new DMV policy is a significant departure from how the agency approached medical marijuana in the past," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, who represented Ms. Johnson in her claim against the DMV. "We expect it will help prevent further unwarranted license suspensions and revocations by the DMV."

As part of the policy change earlier this year, the DMV Driver Safety Procedure Manual was revised to include reference to medical marijuana, stating that "use of medicinal marijuana approved by a physician should be handled in the same manner as any other prescription medication which may affect safe driving." The manual states that the existence of medical marijuana use "does not, in itself, constitute grounds for a license withdrawal action."

Despite Ms. Johnson's clean driving record -- not having caused an accident in 37 years -- the DMV revoked her license in July of 2008. According to the DMV, Ms. Johnson's license was revoked "because of...[an] addiction to, or habitual use of, [a] drug," thereby rendering her unable to safely operate a motor vehicle, even though no evidence existed to substantiate this claim. In January, as a result of the lawsuit and a positive driving test by Ms. Johnson, the DMV reinstated her license and issued the new policy before the case had a chance to go to trial in Superior Court.

Advocates assert that the DMV policy of suspending and revoking the licenses of medical marijuana patients was widespread, occurring in at at least 8 California counties, including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Merced, Placer, Sacramento, and Sonoma. License revocations by the DMV, which have been based on a person's status as a medical marijuana patient, are often rationalized by calling drivers "drug abusers," despite providing no evidence to support the claim.

Further information:
Thursday's ruling from Merced Superior Court: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/DMV_Fees_Ruling.pdf
DMV's policy change re medical marijuana: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/DMV_Policy.pdf
ASA's lawsuit against the DMV: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/DMV_Writ.pdf

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