As a criminal defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale, I am aware of many drivers arrested for the criminal offense of Driving While License Suspended With Knowledge that claim that they were unaware that their license was suspended. The relevant question is, “How can the State prove that the driver had actual knowledge that their license was suspended?”
In Florida, the criminal offense of Driving While License Suspended With Knowledge, Fla. Stat. 322.34 reads in pertinent part: “(2) Any person who driving privilege has been cancelled, suspended, or revoked who, knowing of such cancellation, suspension, or revocation, drives any motor vehicle while such privilege is cancelled, suspended or revoked… The element of knowledge is satisfied if the person has been previously cited for Driving While License Suspended, the driver admits to knowledge of the cancellation, suspension, or revocation, or the driver received notice of the cancellation, suspension, or revocation. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that the knowledge element is satisfied if a judgment or order appears in the department’s records for any case (i.e. driving on a DUI suspension) except for one involving the suspension by the department for failure to pay a traffic fine or for a financial responsibility violation.” In Florida, if an individual accumulates three (3) Driving While License Suspended charges within five (5) years, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will suspend their driver’s license for a period of five (5) years.
The knowledge issue arises when DMV suspends a driver’s license for failure to pay an outstanding traffic ticket (i.e. speeding ticket) or financial responsibility violation (i.e. lapse of insurance). For example, when law enforcement stops a driver for a routine traffic violation they are advised through their database that the driver is driving on a suspended license. Although law enforcement has the option of citing the driver for Driving While License Suspended Without Knowledge, a non-criminal citation; law enforcement oftentimes arrests the driver for Driving While License Suspended With knowledge, a criminal offense.
As justification for their arrest, law enforcement inevitably cites to Florida Statute 322.251(1), which states, in part, “All orders of cancellation, suspension or revocation shall be either given by personal delivery or by deposit in the United States mail addressed to the licensee at his or her last known address furnished to the department. Such mailing by the department constitutes notification, and the failure by the person to receive the mailed order will not affect or stay the effective date of the cancellation, suspension or revocation.” Seemingly, Florida Statute 322.251(1) imputes knowledge of the suspension to the driver regardless of whether the driver actually received the suspension notification. In my experience, such orders are never given by personal delivery when it concerns a failure to pay an outstanding traffic ticket; the orders are sent via United States mail.
Due to the increasing amounts of “junk mail” routinely discarded, it is no surprise that many drivers claim they did not receive the suspension letter from DMV. This is assuming that the suspension letter was actually delivered or that DMV has the driver’s correct address on file. In the event that the driver does not receive a suspension letter from DMV, it seems inherently unjust for the driver to be criminally liable for driving a vehicle with a suspended license and/or potentially face a five year driver’s license suspension. Additionally, Florida Statutes 322.34 and 322.251 seem to be in direct conflict as it relates to how the State is able to prove that a driver had “knowledge” of their suspension when the suspension is as a result of a failure to pay a traffic fine or financial responsibility violation.
Assuming the driver does not make any statements to law enforcement indicating knowledge that that their license was suspended and that the pending suspension is as a result of a failure to pay a traffic fine or financial responsibility violation, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able file a Motion to Dismiss to reduce the charge from the criminal offense of Driving While License Suspended With Knowledge to the non-criminal citation of Driving While License Suspended Without Knowledge. Case Law supports the proposition that the State cannot prove that the driver had actual knowledge of the suspension for a failure to pay a traffic fine or financial responsibility violation without an admission of the same
In Brown v. State,764 So.2d 741 (Fla. 4th DCA, 2000) the Fourth District Court of Appeals overturned the defendant’s conviction for driving while license suspended as the State presented insufficient evidence of “knowledge” of the crime. Specifically, where the defendant’s license was suspended for failure to pay traffic fines, the presumption of knowledge of suspension created by an entry in the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) records did not apply, and thus the State, who relied on such presumption to provide knowledge of the suspension, presented insufficient evidence to support a conviction. The State failed to present any evidence that the defendant actually received notice of the suspension, even though the DMV records indicate that notice of the suspension was mailed to Brown’s address. The Fourth District Court held that although there is evidence that the notice of suspension was mailed to Brown, as required by statute, the mailing of the suspension is not proof that Brown actually received notice of the suspension. As such, the Court could not sustain a finding of actual knowledge. As mentioned previously, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that the knowledge element is satisfied if a judgment or order as provided in subsection (4) appears in the department’s records for any case except for one involving the suspension by the department for failure to pay a traffic fine or for a financial responsibility violation. As the defendant did not make statement(s) to law enforcement indicating awareness that his license was suspended, the State will be unable to prove that the defendant received knowledge of the suspension.
In a similar case, State v. O’Neal, 12 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 868b (Fla. 9th Judicial Circuit, 2005), the 9th Judicial Circuit in and for Osceola County ruled in line with Brown. The O’Neal Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling granting a Motion to Dismiss where the only evidence of defendant’s knowledge of suspension proffered was submitted via a driving record notation. As in our case, the defendant made no admissions that he had knowledge of the suspension. The basis for the suspension was a failure to pay a traffic citation. The Circuit Court held that the State’s argument that the knowledge element is satisfied upon the admission into evidence of the defendant’s driving record that indicates [defendant] was sent notice of the suspension was flawed.
Accordingly, in the event you are arrested for Driving While License Suspended With Knowledge in Florida, it is important to immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to evaluate the specific facts of your case and determine if a Motion to Dismiss is warranted.