It Just Got a Lot Easier to be Convicted of a Driving Offense in Massachusetts

In an opinion delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Appeals Court made it much easier for the Commonwealth to prove minor motor vehicle offenses (such as driving with a suspended license) by authorizing the introduction of records kept by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Royal

The defendant was stopped by a state trooper on November 4, 2013, for driving a car with an expired registration decal.  The trooper ran the defendant’s license through the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) database and learned his license had been suspended.  The defendant elected to have a jury-waived trial in Charlestown District Court.  The only witness against the defendant was the state trooper who stopped him.  The Commonwealth introduced four certified documents from the RMV that established the Registry had mailed to the defendant copies of notices related to his license suspension.

At the trial, the trooper was permitted to testify that he ran the defendant’s license through the RMV database and learned the license was suspended.  The defendant argued on appeal that such testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay, as the trooper was repeating an out-of-court “statement” in order to prove its truth.  The Appeals Court agreed and reversed the defendant’s conviction.  The Commonwealth argued the testimony was not hearsay because it was not a statement made by a person, but rather a record generated by a computer.  The Court said the RMV statement was actually a “computer-stored” rather than a “computer-generated” record, meaning that the computer was simply keeping a record of an assertion made by a human being (as opposed to a calculation made by a computer).  Therefore, because the statement contained in the computer was initially created by a person and not a computer, it was hearsay when it was repeated by the trooper at trial.

This would not be a notable case but for the Court’s comment regarding the admissibility of RMV records.  In 2011, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision named Commonwealth v. Parenteau that addressed whether RMV documents could be introduced in court in a criminal trial.  For many years, RMV documents were admissible as long as they were “certified,” which means they contained a stamp from the Registrar herself that they were true copies of documents related to the defendant’s driving history.  This was important, because prosecutors almost always would prove suspended license cases by simply introducing a packet of certified documents from the RMV proving the defendant received a letter telling him his license would be suspended on a particular date.  In Parenteau, the SJC put a stop to this practice.  The Court said the documents, accompanied by the Registrar’s certification that the defendant had been mailed a copy of the suspension notice, constituted hearsay.  The consequence of the case was that the RMV documents were no longer admissible unless an actual human being from the Registry appeared at trial to testify against the defendant, which almost never happened.  Therefore, for the last five years, it has been nearly impossible for the Commonwealth to prove suspended license cases in court.  Unfortunately for defendants, the Court also told the Commonwealth how to fix the problem.  If, instead of the Registrar’s stamp that certified the document had been mailed to the defendant (which constituted hearsay), the RMV simply kept a contemporaneous record of the document being mailed at a certain time, the documents would be admissible in court as a business record.  There would no longer be a need for the Registrar to add her hearsay statement to the document.  That’s what happened in this case.  The RMV has started to add the date and time when suspension notices are delivered to the post office and since those dates and times are kept during the regular course of business, they are properly admitted in court.

The Appeals Court’s decision validating the introduction of RMV records will make it possible again for the Commonwealth to prove minor motor vehicle violation cases in court without having to call a RMV employee to testify.