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U.S. Supreme Court
BELL v. BURSON, 402 U.S. 535 (1971)

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA
No. 5586.
Argued March 23, 1971
Decided May 24, 1971

Georgia's Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act, which provides that the motor vehicle registration and driver's license of an uninsured motorist involved in an accident shall be suspended unless he posts security for the amount of damages claimed by an aggrieved party and which excludes any consideration of fault or responsibility for the accident at a pre-suspension hearing held violative of procedural due process. Before Georgia, whose statutory scheme significantly involves the issue of liability, may deprive an individual of his license and registration, it must provide a procedure for determining the question whether there is a reasonable possibility of a judgment being rendered against him as a result of the accident. Pp. 539-543.

121 Ga. App. 418, 174 S. E. 2d 235, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, HARLAN, STEWART, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C. J., and BLACK and BLACKMUN, JJ., concurred in the result.

Elizabeth Roediger Rindskopf argued the cause for petitioner pro hac vice. With her on the brief was Howard Moore, Jr.

Dorothy T. Beasley, Assistant Attorney General of Georgia, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Arthur K. Bolton, Attorney General, Harold N. Hill, Jr., Executive Assistant Attorney General, and Courtney Wilder Stanton, Assistant Attorney General.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Georgia's Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act provides that the motor vehicle registration and driver's [402 U.S. 535, 536] license of an uninsured motorist involved in an accident shall be suspended unless he posts security to cover the amount of damages claimed by aggrieved parties in reports of the accident.[fn1] The administrative hearing conducted prior to the suspension excludes consideration of the motorist's fault or liability for the accident. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's contention that the State's statutory scheme, in failing before suspending the licenses to afford him a hearing on the question of his fault or liability, denied him due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment: the court [402 U.S. 535, 537] held that " `Fault' or `innocence' are completely irrelevant factors." 121 Ga. App. 418, 420, 174 S. E. 2d 235, 236 (1970). The Georgia Supreme Court denied review. App. 27. We granted certiorari. 400 U.S. 963 (1970). We reverse.

Petitioner is a clergyman whose ministry requires him to travel by car to cover three rural Georgia communities. On Sunday afternoon, November 24, 1968, petitioner was involved in an accident when five-year-old Sherry Capes rode her bicycle into the side of his automobile. The child's parents filed an accident report with the Director of the Georgia Department of Public Safety indicating that their daughter had suffered substantial injuries for which they claimed damages of $5,000. Petitioner was thereafter informed by the Director that unless he was covered by a liability insurance policy in effect at the time of the accident he must file a bond or cash security deposit of $5,000 or present a notarized release from liability, plus proof of future financial responsibility,[fn2] or suffer the suspension of his driver's license and vehicle registration. App. 9. Petitioner requested an administrative hearing before the Director asserting that he was not liable as the accident was unavoidable, and stating also that he would be severely handicapped in the performance of his ministerial duties by a suspension of his licenses. A hearing was scheduled but the Director informed petitioner that "[t]he only evidence that the Department can accept and consider is: (a) was the petitioner or his vehicle involved in the accident; (b) has petitioner complied with the provisions of the Law as provided; or (c) does petitioner come within [402 U.S. 535, 538] any of the exceptions of the Law." App. 11.[fn3] At the administrative hearing the Director rejected petitioner's proffer of evidence on liability, ascertained that petitioner was not within any of the statutory exceptions, and gave petitioner 30 days to comply with the security requirements or suffer suspension. Petitioner then exercised his statutory right to an appeal de novo in the Superior Court. Ga. Code Ann. 92A-602 (1958). At that hearing, the court permitted petitioner to present his evidence on liability, and, although the claimants were neither parties nor witnesses, found petitioner free from fault. As a result, the Superior Court ordered "that the petitioner's driver's license not be suspended . . . [until] suit is filed against petitioner for the purpose of recovering damages for the injuries sustained by the child . . . ." App. 15. This order was reversed by the Georgia Court of Appeals in overruling petitioner's constitutional contention. [402 U.S. 535, 539]  

If the statute barred the issuance of licenses to all motorists who did not carry liability insurance or who did not post security, the statute would not, under our cases, violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Ex parte Poresky, 290 U.S. 30 (1933); Continental Baking Co. v. Woodring, 286 U.S. 352 (1932); Hess v. Pawloski, 274 U.S. 352 (1927). It does not follow, however, that the amendment also permits the Georgia statutory scheme where not all motorists, but rather only motorists involved in accidents, are required to post security under penalty of loss of the licenses. See Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969); Frost & Frost Trucking Co. v. Railroad Comm'n, 271 U.S. 583 (1926). Once licenses are issued, as in petitioner's case, their continued possession may become essential in the pursuit of a livelihood. Suspension of issued licenses thus involves state action that adjudicates important interests of the licensees. In such cases the licenses are not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment. Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337 (1969); Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970). This is but an application of the general proposition that relevant constitutional restraints limit state power to terminate an entitlement whether the entitlement is denominated a "right" or a "privilege." Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) (disqualification for unemployment compensation); Slochower v. Board of Education, 350 U.S. 551 (1956) (discharge from public employment); Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513 (1958) (denial of a tax exemption); Goldberg v. Kelly, supra (withdrawal of welfare benefits). See also Londoner v. Denver, 210 U.S. 373, 385 -386 (1908); Goldsmith v. Board of Tax Appeals, 270 U.S. 117 (1926); Opp Cotton Mills v. Administrator, 312 U.S. 126 (1941).

We turn then to the nature of the procedural due process which must be afforded the licensee on the question [402 U.S. 535, 540] of his fault or liability for the accident.[fn4] A procedural rule that may satisfy due process in one context may not necessarily satisfy procedural due process in every case. Thus, procedures adequate to determine a welfare claim may not suffice to try a felony charge. Compare Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S., at 270 -271, with Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). Clearly, however, the inquiry into fault or liability requisite to afford the licensee due process need not take the form of a full adjudication of the question of liability. That adjudication can only be made in litigation between the parties involved in the accident. Since the only purpose of the provisions before us is to obtain security from which to pay any judgments against the licensee resulting from the accident, we hold that procedural due process will be satisfied by an inquiry limited to the determination whether there is a reasonable possibility of judgments in the amounts claimed being rendered against the licensee.