Driving without a license has long been a strict liability offense in D.C. That is, in order to secure a conviction for this offense, the government need only prove that you didn’t have a driver’s license at the time you were driving. It does not need to prove any type of criminal intent or guilty knowledge; in this case, that you knew you were not privileged to operate the car at the time you were caught driving it.
This makes some sense. People know that they need a license in order to drive. They also know whether or not they ever went to the Department of Motor Vehicle to take the written and then the driving test. But how about if, having initially been granted your operating privileges, the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended your operating privileges for some reason and then neglected to inform you? For example, maybe the notice of hearing was lost in the mail.
According to a recent decision issued by the D.C. Court of Appeals, D.C. v. Rachel Loftus, 51 A.3d 1285 (D.C. 2012), you are still guilty of operating on a suspended license whether or not you were ever notified of the suspension. In other words, like operating without a permit, operating on a suspended license is a strict liability offense.
After being convicted of driving a car on a suspended license, Rachel Loftus argued on appeal that the court should have instructed members of the jury that, in order to convict her of this offense, they had to find that she was aware that her license had been suspended at the time she was driving. Although the government proved that Loftus’ license had been suspended, it produced no evidence that Loftus was ever made aware of this suspension.
The trial judge – and then the Court of Appeals – looked first to the plain language of the statute and D.C. model jury instructions. Failing to find a scienter requirement there, the Court of Appeals looked next to prior case law and found Santos v. District of Columbia, 940 A.2d 113 (D.C. 2007), which concluded that operating without a permit is a strict liability offense. And because the Court could not identify “any significant differences” between the two statutes, it decided to follow Santos in this case.
The problem with this decision is that there is in fact a very significant difference between the two offenses. Again, you know whether or not you ever went to the trouble of getting yourself a license. By contrast, there may be many reasons you may not be aware that your license, once granted, has been suspended.
The Court of Appeals acknowledges this problem: “While the requirement to obtain a driver’s permit is ubiquitous and familiar to all motorists, the circumstances under which a permit may be suspended are less familiar, and potentially more prone to administrative error.” (Internal quotations and citations omitted.) It then writes off this problem with a simple pronouncement: “the District of Columbia has a well-defined system for providing notice and a hearing before licenses are suspended.”
Apparently, members of the D.C. Court of Appeals have not had many dealings with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in the District.