Supreme Judicial Court, December 18, 2014

In an operating after suspension case, the Commonwealth’s introduction of a certified docket sheet indicating a license suspension as part of the disposition, alone, without more evidence, is not enough to prove the element of notice.

After trial, the defendant was convicted of operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license based on an underlying conviction for operating under the influence (OUI).  During the trial, to prove the defendant was notified of the license suspension, the Commonwealth introduced a certified copy of the criminal docket for the defendant’s underlying OUI offense.  Included in the certified docket sheet was a handwritten notation indicating “60 day license loss.”  The docket sheet also indicated that the defendant admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilty on the OUI charge just 36 days prior to being pulled over and charged with operating with a suspended license for OUI; well within the 60 day time period of the suspension.

On appeal the defendant argued that his motion for a required finding of not guilty should have been allowed because the Commonwealth failed to prove that the defendant was on notice that his license was suspended.  In a split decision the Appeals Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for operating after suspension for OUI ruling that the Commonwealth’s introduction of a certified docket sheet indicating a license suspension as part of the OUI disposition was enough to prove the element of notice.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) granted further appellate review on the limited issue of the sufficiency of the evidence that defendant was notified of the license suspension.  The SJC reversed the Appellate Court’s decision ruling that the evidence at trial was insufficient to prove this element beyond a reasonable doubt.  “While the docket sheet from the OUI case, which was in evidence, permits an inference that the defendant was present when his license was suspended, the Commonwealth did not offer any evidence demonstrating that the suspension was communicated to him.  The docket sheet itself does not state that the defendant was notified of the suspension.  The Commonwealth did not present evidence that the judge in the OUI case announced the suspension in open court.  There is no evidence in the record that the docket sheet was shown to the defendant or that any other written notification was sent to him.  Even on the assumption that to do so was the regular practice when accepting a plea -- a proposition unsupported by the record -- the Commonwealth may not rely on a presumption of regularity as a substitute for evidence proving an element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

NOTE:   The Court comments on the requirement in Chapter 90, § 24D that a defendant surrender his license to the probation department upon conviction.  “Moreover, the evidence showed that when he was stopped, the defendant had his license in his possession and gave it to the police officer.   When a license is suspended in connection with a conviction for operating while under the influence, G. L. c. 90, § 24D, fourth par., requires that the license be surrendered to the probation department.  Here, however, the defendant apparently did not surrender his license.  A possible reason for this is that nobody notified the defendant that his license was suspended.”