Appeals Court grants more discretion to judges to infer notice of license suspensions in OUI cases

There are usually opportunities for first-time offenders in OUI cases to accept a lighter criminal punishment in exchange for some admission in court. But many people do not realize that there are always conditions and consequences of these court admissions – although they are not guilty pleas. As in the case of Commonwealth v. Oyewole, when a defendant fails to carefully comply with the conditions of the court orders pursuant to his admission, he will be considered to have committed a crime – whether or not he was actually aware and understood these conditions.

In the matter of Oyewole, the defendant was convicted by a trial judge for operating a vehicle after his license was suspended for an OUI. The initial trial judge in Oyewole’s OUI case continued the OUI conviction without a finding for one year, and ordered that Oyewole’s license be temporarily suspended.

During the suspension period, Oyewole was pulled over in the middle of the night for driving without his headlights. When the officer asked him for a license and registration, Oyewole fully complied and produced a license. The officer returned to the police cruiser to run the plate number and license number, and found that Oyewole’s license was suspended by a trial judge less than sixty days earlier. The officer confiscated the license and arrested Oyewole for driving with a suspended license under chapter 90, section 23 of the General Laws. When Oyewole was booked at the police station, he informed the booking officer that he was a “caregiver” – which is one of the qualifications for a hardship license.

The trial judge in the license suspension case found Oyewole guilty of operating with a suspended license when the Commonwealth admitted the court records on the OUI case into evidence. The records showed Oyewole to have admitted to there being enough facts to prove him guilty, and the case was concluded through a continuance without a finding. The language in the record also showed Oyewole’s license was suspended for sixty days.

Oyewole’s attorney argued that the Commonwealth failed to prove that Oyewole was actually notified of the license suspension, and that even if he was notified, the Commonwealth also needed to prove that Oyewole was not issued a hardship license. This second argument arose from the fact that the arresting officer testified on cross-examination that Oyewole did in fact have a license at the time of the stop. But the Commonwealth did not provide the license in court – although the officer confiscated it.

On appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided the Commonwealth did not need to prove the defendant did not have a hardship license. The court also refused the defendant’s notice argument, holding that the Commonwealth did not need to prove that Oyewole actually knew that his license was suspended. Instead, the court inferred that Oyewole was put on notice when the OUI case was concluded while Oyewole was present in court.

Associate Justice Peter Agnes, one of the panel members of the Appeals Court, disagreed with the decision that the trial judge correctly inferred Oyewole was put on notice. Agnes believed that while the fact Oyewole was present during the OUI trial may suggest there was notice, this inference is too circumstantial since it does not account for the fact that Oyewole actually did have a license at the time of arrest. According to Justice Agnes, no trial judge could infer from this evidence alone that Oyewole was notified beyond any reasonable doubt.

Regardless of whether the Appeals Court’s decision was correct, it is absolutely critical that a defendant fully understand the consequences of his admissions and pleas in court. Although it may not result in traditional criminal penalties such as confinement or heavy fines, an admission leading to a continuance without a finding could still have a strong bearing on how courts treat the defendant in subsequent hearings. It is important for every defendant to be accompanied by an experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney who could explain these consequences clearly and carefully to him.

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