Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules that Docket Sheet is Insufficient to Establish Defendant Knew His Driver’s License was Suspended

The Supreme Judicial Court delivered an important decision yesterday regarding the level of proof necessary to prove that a criminal defendant had knowledge that his driver’s license was suspended.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Oyewole

In November of 2009, a Wilmington police officer saw the defendant driving a car in the middle of the night without his headlights illuminated.  The officer stopped the car and demanded the defendant’s license and registration.  The defendant produced a license and a registration document establishing that the car was a rental.  The officer was able to determine that the defendant’s driver’s license had been suspended as a result of pleading out an operating under the influence of alcohol case the month before.  Therefore, the defendant was removed from his car and arrested, charged with operating with a suspended license as a result of operating under the influence of alcohol.

Operating with a suspended license is usually not a big deal.  There are two exceptions: if the defendant has previously been convicted of the same crime, he might be classified as a “habitual traffic offender” and subject to much more serious crimes; and (2) if the driver’s license is suspended as a result of an operating under the influence of alcohol plea, the sentence carries a mandatory minimum 60 days in jail.  This sentence cannot be waived or suspended.  Anybody who is caught driving while his or her license is suspended for OUI is facing two months in jail.

The issue in this appeal was straightforward – did the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office produce enough evidence on each of the elements of the crime to convince a judge or jury that the defendant was guilty?  In order to convict a defendant of this crime, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) the defendant drove a motor vehicle; (2) the defendant’s license was suspended; (3) the suspension was the result of a conviction or plea for operating under the influence of alcohol; and (4) the defendant had received notice that his license was suspended or revoked.

In this case, the SJC ruled that the first three elements had been satisfied.  The defendant was driving his car while his license had been suspended for an OUI plea.  The issue was whether the prosecutor introduced sufficient evidence that the defendant received notice of the suspension.  The Commonwealth attempted to satisfy its burden by introducing the docket sheet from the operating under the influence of alcohol case, which stated that the defendant’s license had been suspended.  The Court ruled that the docket sheet permitted an inference that the defendant was in court when he pleaded out his OUI case.  However, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office failed to prove that the license suspension was communicated to the defendant, as the docket sheet did not state that the defendant was told that his license was being suspended.  While there may be a presumption that defendants are advised of their license statutes in these types of cases, the Court ruled that the presumption of regularity is not a substitute for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office proving an element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that the problem could have easily been solved if the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office had simply entered a transcript of the plea hearing into evidence.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office’s failure to establish the notice element beyond a reasonable doubt has resulted in the defendant being saved from having to serve a 60-day jail sentence.