If you are dealing with a Driving on a Suspended Drivers License misdemeanor charge, you probably have questions. Are there any defenses? Can I get the charges reduced?
There are defenses to driving on a suspended license, and methods of dealing with the problem to minimize the consequences and stress.
Understanding Misdemeanor Driving on a Suspended Drivers License
This article will discuss CA law, but the general principles may increase general understanding of the issues for other jurisdictions.
|There are many variations of the “Driving on a Suspended Drivers License” violation. The variations usually depend on the reason for the suspension.|
A drivers license suspension caused by an alcohol offense, such as a DUI, for example (Vehicle Code section 14601.2), brings stiffer penalties than a suspension caused by a missed court date on a traffic ticket (Vehicle Code section 14601.1). Some versions, and violations with prior offenses, may bring mandatory jail time.
The most common form of drivers license suspension comes from a missed court date on a traffic ticket. Often, people with this problem may not know their drivers license is suspended and they keep driving until they get caught.
A drivers license is not required to resolve a Driving on a Suspended Drivers License charge, but it might help. It is always a good idea for a person charged with driving on a suspended drivers license to get a valid drivers license as soon as possible. But don’t miss court because you could not get a valid drivers license! Go to court on time anyway.
To California Defense Attorneys, a driving on a suspended drivers license offense is called a “14601″. What that refers to is the actual statute: California Vehicle Code section 14601.1 which is the law that makes a simple driving with a suspended drivers license a misdemeanor crime. That is the violation we will discuss here.
It is a real misdemeanor, which means it can lead to a criminal record, and a possible max sentence up to 1 year county jail. It always starts out as a misdemeanor, but can be treated as an infraction by the court.
A “VC 14601.1” as it is sometimes called, also adds 2 “Negligent Driver Points” to a DMV driver history – separate from the court penalties. Sometimes, those 2 “points” can cause a new drivers license suspension due to having too many negligent driver points.
As a misdemeanor offense (crime), people charged with driving on a suspended license violations are entitled to a jury trial if they wish to fight against a conviction. And people who are completely broke can ask the court to appoint a public defender in any misdemeanor case.
If the court changes it to an infraction, jail time is not possible. A fine is the only punishment from the court, and the DMV will still apply 2 points to the violation.
|When dealing with a Suspended Drivers License case, a typical defense attorney will usually have the following goals, in order of priority:|
1) get a dismissal or not guilty verdict on the charge if possible; or
2) get the misdemeanor charge reduced to a different infraction with no points; or
3) get it reduced to an infraction version of Vehicle Code 14601.1 with points.
There are different avenues to accomplishing one of these goals. If everything fails, the Defendant gets convicted of a misdemeanor and has a criminal conviction record.
Most misdemeanor criminal cases end in a plea agreement without a trial. Generally, a Defense Attorney will try to develop and communicate possible defenses to the prosecutor, in the hopes of convincing them that a trial would be a giant waste of time and resources.
This process usually happens in court during the arraignment or pre trial conferences. Routine misdemeanor plea bargains are also often made over the phone when a defense attorney calls the prosecutor to discuss a case. Judges like it when Defense Attorneys and Prosecutors have an agreement to end a case.
Applicable defenses to Driving on a Suspended Drivers License might provide the leverage to get a dismissal from the prosecutor prior to trial.
From a defense attorney perspective, defenses are first used to provide leverage for reasonable, effective plea negotiations. Later, if a trial is necessary because of an unreasonable prosecutor or judge, the defense(s) can be presented formally at a trial.
What defenses could there possibly be if the drivers license was actually suspended?
There are several. A good defense Attorney will review and consider and try to use at least the following defenses:
Defense # 1. Stop of the Defendant’s Vehicle Was an Illegal Detention and Arrest.
Peace officers, such as the California Highway Patrol and county sheriffs, must have a valid legal reason to stop a vehicle before they ask for a drivers license.
The 4th amendment to the US Constitution requires that an officer have specific facts that would lead a reasonable officer in the same circumstances to believe that:
1) a crime or motor vehicle code violation occurred; and 2) that the vehicle or occupants were involved in the violation or crime.
In practice, this generally means that the officer must have reason to believe a driver has violated a traffic law. An officer is generally not allowed to stop a vehicle only because they suspect the person may have a suspended drivers license.
Why? From a Defense Attorney point of view, there is no way for an officer to know who is actually driving a car, or what the status of the drivers license of that specific individual is until after the car is stopped (or detained). The justification for the stop must be present before the officer turns on his flashing red and blue lights and thereby begins the detention.
If there is no legal justification for the stop at the time the detention begins, it is an illegal detention under the 4th Amendment.
If there are grounds for challenging an illegal stop, a Criminal Defense Attorney may write and file a Motion under Penal Code section 1538.5 for an order to exclude all evidence flowing from the illegal detention, including discovery of the status of the drivers license. Usually, the court will have a separate hearing prior to jury trial to determine if a Defendant’s Penal Code section 1538.5 Motion should be granted.
In ruling on the motion, the judge may take live testimony from witnesses and the police officer(s). If the judge agrees that the stop was illegal, the Motion is granted, and the court will not allow evidence collected after the stop in the trial. That means they cannot use the status of the drivers license as evidence. When this happens, the prosecution’s case is usually crippled and, usually, dismissed on the spot.
If there are facts that could form the basis of a successful Motion to Suppress, a Defense Attorney can communicate these to the prosecutor, and perhaps negotiate a favorable plea agreement to be finalized at the next scheduled court date.
If the court reduces a Driving on a Suspended Drivers License charge to an infraction, the defendant only has a right to a court trial. There is no option for a hearing on a Motion to Suppress. But the motion can be made at the very beginning of a court trial.
Defense #2. Driver Did Not Have Actual Knowledge of the Suspended License.
If there is a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge, the government will have to prove the defendant knew his/her drivers license was in fact suspended. Knowledge of the suspension is a required element of the charge.
There are ways for the government to get around the “Actual Knowledge” requirement. For example, a driver is required by law to keep their address current with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) at all times.
If the DMV does not have your correct address, it is your fault, not the fault of DMV. The law also presumes that if DMV sent you proper notice of the suspension, you got it, even if you did not get it. Get it?
DMV does send out notices of suspension to the last known address via certified mail. And yes, they probably have proof they sent it to your address on file. However, there are occasions where DMV fails to give proper notice or warning to a driver of a suspended license. When that happens, there may be grounds for a motion to dismiss the case prior to trial, or a solid basis for a jury to vote not guilty.
It is also important to note that in order for the government to establish the Defendant had either actual or legal notice of the suspension, normally, they have to introduce DMV records into evidence at trial. Without a proper evidentary foundation in trial, these DMV records are inadmissible hearsay. Because of this, a Defense Attorney will almost always want to object to and challenge the admission of the DMV records on “Hearsay” grounds.
Defense #3. A Driver Charged with Driving on a Suspended Drivers License is Presumed Innocent.
A defendant charged with a misdemeanor or infraction violation starts out presumed innocent. To get a conviction, the government must prove the violation up “beyond a reasonable doubt” to overcome this presumption of innocence. If the government is unable to meet this burden, the defendant is not guilty.
Many “not guilty!” verdicts have been won on the simple argument to a receptive jury that there was not enough evidence shown in trial to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore, not enough to convict. Consequently, it is always important to review all of the evidence the government intends to use in a prosecution.
A careful study of the evidence may reveal that critical evidence is missing or not admissible because of a rule of evidence. Such may be the case if a prosecutor does not have admissible documents to prove the DMV suspended the drivers license during the day of the violation (the receipt for the mailing of the notice).
Getting a Valid Drivers License Is Not a Defense, But Can Help.
Ironically, getting a valid drivers license (or the license reinstated) is not a defense to the charge of violating Vehicle code section 14601.1. This is because getting a new license does not suddenly erase history, and it is not a correctable violation. If you were caught driving, you were caught driving. Don’t expect to win a trial because you eventually got a valid drivers license.
But there is good news. When a VC 14601.1 defendant gets a valid drivers license, it is often very helpful in getting a good result on the case prior to a trial. The courts and prosecuting agencies are always motivated to get rid of suspended license cases efficiently without a trial. And most judges believe society’s interests are best served by getting a suspended driver back on track, rather than giving them a jail sentence.
Because of these factors, valid drivers license can be used to ask for a reduction in the charge. For example, maybe a defendant can present a valid drivers license at the Arraignment and ask for a substituted charge of something like Vehicle Code section 12500(a) – (Driving without a valid drivers license) – which is much better for a lot of reasons. For example, it can be an infraction, and carries no points on a driver history report.
What If You Have to Go to Court Alone?
Here are some general tips for the self represented defendant:
Keep in mind that an infraction is almost always better than a misdemeanor. Get clarity on which version you are charged with. If you have an illegal stop on an infraction that you want to challenge, demand a trial and make a Motion to Suppress. If you can get a valid drivers license, tell the judge you have one at your earliest opportunity. Ask the judge for what you want.
Dont be afraid to ask for more time to get a drivers license, or more time to hire an attorney. It is common for a court to continue a case to allow a defendant to get a drivers license or hire an attorney.
Driving on a Suspended Drivers License vs. Driving Without a Valid Drivers License.
Questions? Leave a Comment.
What about the car that got impounded? We can’t help with that. Sorry. Go down to the tow yard in person with a licensed driver and proof of insurance. Ask for the vehicle back. Sometimes the 30 days hold is not imposed fully.