HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Mississippi Department of Public Safety mistakenly told hundreds of Mississippians who had prior DUI charges dismissed or expunged their driver's licenses would be suspended next month.
"It's absolutely a mess," said Hattiesburg criminal defense attorney Michael Reed. "How it first came to my attention is a client called me a couple days ago who I represented in a case in 2004 on a DUI. The DUI was dismissed, and he just got a letter saying that his license was going to be suspended starting in January. Not only is he panicked, then the lawyer panics too because (you think) oh no did we not get something right?"
Attorneys across the state said they received similar calls about DUI license suspension letters received from the Department of Public Safety.
"It is my understanding that this problem has been statewide with hundreds of these letters going out," said Hattiesburg attorney Michael Shemper. "Friends of mine who have had previous representation involved in DUIs have gotten these letters. One in which they had never had a conviction, and it said their license was going to be suspended. A second who had it dismissed and expunged, saying his license was reinstated, even though the driver's license number on the letter to him was not even a valid driver's license number. "
Reed said, "It kind of snowballed from there with other clients calling in. We get to checking around, and sure enough the Department of Public Safety simply had a computer glitch."
Warren Strain, public affairs director for the Department of Public Safety, confirmed Tuesday the letters were sent because of a computer system error.
"It has come to the attention of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety's Driver Service Bureau that some valid Mississippi driver's license holders have been notified their licenses are suspended," Strain said in a statement. "The DPS has determined there was an error with an automated process and is working with the contractor, MorphoTrust USA, to ensure the error has been corrected. Additionally, the contractor's actions will be reviewed by agency officials to determine remedies needed to avoid this situation in the future."
Shemper said, "I would say that the biggest problem is going to be the confusion, probably the fear. There's also an issue with people who might have moved, and so their addresses have changed. They might not have the notice, especially if it's a legitimate letter for someone who may, in fact, be losing their driving privileges Jan. 25."
Reed said, "What about a client that has moved to another state or somewhere else, and they don't get the letter? They don't know that their license is going to be suspended. If they get pulled over, they'll likely going to jail. Their car's going to be towed, et cetera."
Both attorneys say the fact that supposedly expunged records were involved is concerning.
"Absolutely, yes because if a charge is expunged, most of the time the order says it returns the person back to the status before they were ever charged," Reed said. "The file is actually supposed to be destroyed, the information deleted from the computer, et cetera, so evidently, it hadn't been."
Shemper said, "That would be a concern. If you've had a charge that was supposedly expunged, and now this is popping back up."
Computer glitch or not, Reed said they are real letters from the Department of Public Safety that could have real consequences for drivers.
"I thought maybe it was like a tax scam where you get a call that says, 'hey you didn't pay your taxes. You need to pay it now,'" Reed said. "But turns out, it is not a scam. It's a legitimate letter from the Department of Public Safety. They're absolutely legitimate letters from the Department of Public Safety, and at least as of right now, if the person who gets the letter doesn't take some action to be proactive they're licenses are going to be suspended when they shouldn't be."
Reed suggests anyone who received an incorrect letter asks his attorney for copies of the court documents explaining how the DUI was resolved to have if pulled over by law enforcement while driving.
Strain said anyone who received these letters dated between Dec. 11 and Dec. 19 should call the Driver Records Division at (601) 987-1224 immediately after receiving the notice.
"The Mississippi Department of Public Safety regrets any inconvenience this error may have caused," Strain said.