SJC rules in favor of Defendant in license suspension case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has just issued an important decision in the license suspension case of Commonwealth v. Oyewole (click here for my previous blog on the case). After the Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s arguments that he was not properly notified of his suspension, the Supreme Judicial Court officially reversed this decision, agreeing with Appeals Court Justice Agnes’s dissent that the State must be required to prove notice beyond all reasonable doubt.

The Oyewole case involved a defendant who was charged with an OUI, and who was subsequently stopped by an officer operating within the 60 day license suspension period. The defendant’s license was temporarily suspended as a result of the OUI conviction that was continued by the trial judge for one year. And although the trial court generally confiscates the defendant’s license for the duration of the license suspension period, the officer who later stopped the defendant within the 60 day period testified that the defendant had his license with him at the time of this subsequent stop.

The defendant argued that he was not properly notified of his license suspension, and that the State failed to meet its burden of proof on this element of the charge. To convict on a charge of operating with a suspended license, the State must prove that the defendant not only operated a vehicle during the suspension term, but that the defendant did so while on notice that his license was suspended.

The State claimed, and the Appeals Court agreed, that the defendant’s presence in the courtroom when the judge issued the temporary sentence was sufficient to put the defendant on notice of his license suspension. The State reasoning relies on the fact that it is regular practice for the court to inform the defendant of a suspension. Since this is common practice, there should be an automatic presumption that the defendant was put on notice where the defendant was present in the courtroom.

The Supreme Judicial Court, however, refused to presume notice merely from the fact that it is regular practice for the court to inform the defendant of the suspension. The Court’s decision emphasized its refusal to shift the burden of proof from the State in proving all the elements of a crime against the defendant. As part of every defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence, the State is required to prove every element of the charge against the defendant beyond any reasonable doubt. In this case there was no evidence to infer actual notice from the record. The Court reviewed the record and found no evidence from the docket, hearing transcript, or the trial court’s rulings that the defendant was actually informed that his license had been suspended. Regardless of whether it is common practice for courts to inform defendants of their license suspension, there simply was no reason to suggest this was the case in the defendant’s matter.

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