Photos by Jessica CalkinsYou've just eased your car onto a busy OC boulevard, taking great care to leave enough space between yourself and any oncoming vehicles—but not, apparently, enough for the woman who has suddenly popped up behind you, honking her horn and flashing her brights.
Thinking something's wrong, you instinctively, innocently slow down, which only makes her flip the bird at you. In a lifetime of SoCal driving, you've developed a keen talent for rear-view-mirror lip reading —which is how you can tell that the words fucking and asshole are erupting from her mouth.
You're a native, so you flip right back, your response to just another idiot driver in a county of many. At the next light, she stops behind you and glares. You glare right back. And when the green lights up, you both continue on your way to wherever.
In a few minutes, you'll probably have forgotten all about it—that shit happens to everybody—but you'll be reminded of the exchange in a few days, when you get a notice from the California Department of Motor Vehicles:
In the interest of your personal safety and the safety of others using the highways, it is necessary for the DMV to review your driving qualifications.
An anonymous accuser—that woman, you assume —went and reported you, and now you have to show up at a hearing.
That's what happened to a friend of mine, Eric Mayfield of Irvine. Under a little-known loophole of the California Vehicle Code—one that was designed primarily to get unsafe elderly drivers off the road—anyone can file a complaint against any driver for whatever perceived infraction they want. Didn't signal before you made that lane change? Not going fast enough? Someone thinks you're ugly? You're the wrong ethnicity? Got an IMPEACH BUSH sticker on your bumper? With a license-plate number, perhaps a bit of colorful elaboration and no proof or witnesses whatsoever, it's shockingly simple for someone to commit what's essentially a sort of bureaucratic road rage—vengeance via inconvenience. You could lose your license, and in Southern California, that means you could lose your life.
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In Mayfield's case, according to the incident report filed against him, someone witnessed him suddenly pull into traffic lanes and slam on his brakes. He adamantly denies it. When Mayfield called the DMV driver-safety office in Irvine after receiving the notice of reexamination, he says the employees he spoke to were less than forthcoming with information.
"All they said was that they received a complaint about an incident," Mayfield says. "The woman I talked to refused to tell me what it was regarding, even what date it occurred. I asked them if they had checked my driving record—mine is spotless—but all they said was that my record didn't matter. They tried to calm me down by saying that it wasn't a big deal, that I shouldn't worry about it."
But he did worry, especially after reading the part of the notice that said the DMV could suspend his license if, during the hearing, they concluded he wasn't a fit driver. Mayfield freaked out a bit, since he, like most of us, needs a car to get to his job.
Unable to coax much helpful information from the DMV and flummoxed by a secret court and laws he never knew existed, Mayfield hired a lawyer. Total tab thus far: more than $1,000. He had to take a day off work to appear for the weekday-afternoon hearing at the DMV Driver Safety office in Irvine. It was a revelation in the ways a large state-run administration conducts its daily business.
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While checking in with the DMV employee on the other side of a bulletproof window, Mayfield could see cubicles decorated with patriotic bunting—ironic, he thought: here he was forced into attending a hearing because of the testimony of an unnamed accuser.
After being called and led into a hearing room where a driver-safety officer sat beneath a sign reading, "Threatening a state employee is unlawful"; after getting sworn in and describing his version of the incident in detail; after being asked if he has ever done drugs or any heavy drinking; after the desk officer reviewed a printout of Mayfield's driving record—clean, with no moving violations or accidents since he moved to California in 1990—after all this, Mayfield's case was dismissed, since it was essentially one unsubstantiated report pitted against another. The complaint, however, will remain on his record, and Mayfield is concerned this might affect his insurance rates. (It could, according to insurers contacted by the Weekly, though Mayfield's latest policy showed no changes.)
When Mayfield asked the safety officer during the hearing what would occur if more people were aware of the headaches they could easily create for drivers who commit even the most minor of infractions, the safety officer admitted her office would be choked, backlogged with hearing appointments up to a year or more; as it is now, Mayfield's case dragged on for two months from the time the complaint against him was filed until he received a hearing date. But until the state politicians who write DMV laws close this loophole, she said, there's nothing she can do.
Photo by Jessica Calkins
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The sections of the state driver code applying to Mayfield's case are not only vague, but they're also directed primarily toward older people who aren't willing to give up the wheel—crazy Uncle Junior who has just mowed down a bus bench, for instance, but doesn't want to surrender his freedom. Invoking the regulation is usually left to doctors, police officers or the adult children of elderly drivers.
Mayfield, however, is 34 years old. He has no history of alcohol or drug abuse, no lapses of consciousness while driving, and has had no serious accidents. When told of his case, attorneys who specialize in DMV laws were surprised to hear of the codes being applied so broadly.
"I find it unusual that someone can lodge a complaint against a driver based on simply a plate number with no corroborating evidence," says T.J. Demme, a consultant with the law offices of Lawrence Taylor Inc. in Irvine who for eight years was a DMV hearing officer himself. Another attorney says the DMV's policy is inconsistent and very broad. "They're very vague," says Rock O. Kendall, a Laguna Niguel lawyer. "Most of my clients are senior citizens whose children or family members or doctors are trying to stop them from driving. But I haven't heard of anything like this. I was aware that this could happen, but I hadn't heard of it actually being applied. If that's the case, though, I'm disappointed. It opens up a Pandora's box for everybody, especially when you think of all the feuds that some neighbors have. It makes you scratch your head."
As with the official who presided at Mayfield's hearing, representatives at state DMV headquarters in Sacramento admit their hands are tied with the way the law is applied, but only after trying to explain it away. "The law exists to provide an avenue for people to report dangerous driving," DMV spokesman Steven Haskins says. "What will sometimes happen is that the people on the bad end of the report are told that someone reported them, and then they'll come in for an interview, but we can't prove that they were even driving, so that's why in-person interviews are part of the process."
Can't Haskins see the potential for abuse—the room for frivolous complaints because someone might hold a grudge against someone else? "Sure, but it's used primarily by relatives of people whose driving skills have eroded," he says.
Haskins then drifts into spokesman-speak: "We're concerned, obviously. It's not something we take lightly. This is very serious to us. We understand what the consequences are."
Haskins blames legislators. "It's hard to get into it," he says. "This is a law we did not create. It's all a legislative process. We only act on the laws that are applied to us. People have to submit complaints to us in writing, and you can't report someone anonymously. People just can't turn in their neighbors."
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Actually, people can just turn in their neighbors without a shred of proof or evidence, using whatever story they'd like to concoct. In 1999, the last year for which the DMV has such records, 99,000 complaints were filed against California drivers under the provision. Haskins says the DMV doesn't break these numbers down, so there are no stats on how many of these were frivolous or even how many were upheld or dismissed. "The law is not put there for people seeking vengeance, though," Haskins says. "It certainly could be abused."
It sure can—even by DMV officials. In 2001, Steven Gourley, director of the California DMV, came under fire when it was revealed he had launched a vendetta under cover of a citizen complaint. Gourley's target was Fawaz Al Sagheer, a 22-year-old Kuwaiti college student living in Cerritos. Gourley said Al Sagheer had cut him off on a freeway in the San Fernando Valley and was possibly a terrorist in the U.S. illegally. Following a three-month investigation of the student—including surveillance of his home—DMV officials concluded he was not only not guilty, but he was also quite possibly not even behind the wheel on the day of the alleged incident.
Haskins says such cases are so rare he'd "never heard of anything like that." But could Haskins see where DMV laws leave open the potential for abuse?