West Virginia v. Kelly – Case Brief Summary (West Virginia)

In West Virginia v. Kelly, 145 W. Va. 70, 112 S.E.2d 641 (1960), the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles revoked a used car dealer's business license on the ground of record-keeping violations.

The used car dealer was charged with the violations as a result of an investigation by the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A revocation hearing was held and was presided over by one of the commissioner's deputies. The commissioner appeared and testified about the findings of his investigation.

The used car dealer gave contrary testimony. The deputy commissioner chose to believe his superior over the used car dealer, and ruled to revoke the dealer's license.

On appeal, the used car dealer argued that having the deputy commissioner serve as the fact-finder and decision-maker in a hearing in which his superior's investigation and findings were at issue created "command influence" that undermined his due process rights to a fair and impartial hearing.

The Supreme Court of West Virginia agreed.

It noted that due process requires that a trial or hearing . . . be fair, unbiased and by an impartial tribunal, whether the tribunal be administrative or judicial, and that the power exercised by the tribunal . . . not be exercised in an arbitrary or capricious manner. Id. at 74.

The court then stated:

In Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927), Mr. Chief Justice Taft . . . stated: "Every procedure which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge to forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant, or which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear and true between the State and the accused, denies the latter due process of law."

...

Therefore, remembering the history giving rise to the adoption of the due process provisions, and keeping in mind the freedoms assured the people thereby, we are of the view that the record discloses that the used car dealer has been denied due process of law and that, for that reason, the order should be set aside and the writ prayed for awarded. It can hardly be contended that the commissioner, in the making of the investigation and in testifying before the deputy commissioner appointed by him and responsible to him, beyond any reasonable probability, did not become biased and prejudiced in the matter being heard. It would seem to be beyond human experience and expectation for impartiality to result where the officer is investigator, prosecutor, witness and trier of facts. It would seem clear, in these circumstances, that the deputy commissioner could not have acted with impartiality in the consideration of the used car dealer's rights. His actions were for the commissioner, and could not be expected to be free and independent of his influence. Such procedure would most certainly "offer a possible temptation to the average man to forget the burden of proof." This, of course, is not to intimate that the commissioner or deputy commissioner acted with any evil intention or design. But denial of due process, within the meaning of the law, is of itself arbitrary and capricious action, though the officer or tribunal may have acted with the most worthy intentions. (Id. at 145 W. Va. 75-76.)