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Santos v. District of Columbia


November 29, 2007; as amended December 5, 2007


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (T-340-05 & T-6445-04) (Hon. Patricia A. Wynn, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

Submitted October 24, 2007

Before GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, NEBEKER and STEADMAN, Senior Judges.

In these consolidated cases, Hilarion Santos was convicted in a bench trial of three traffic offenses: driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor (DUI) in violation of D.C. Code § 50-2201.05 (b)(1) (2001 & Supp. 2007); operating a vehicle while impaired by the consumption of intoxicating liquor (OWI) in violation of D.C. Code § 50-2201.05 (b)(2) (2001 & Supp. 2007);*fn1 and operating a motor vehicle in the District of Columbia without a permit in violation of D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) (2001 & Supp. 2007). Santos does not challenge the validity of his DUI and OWI convictions, both of which resulted from his arrest for drunk driving on November 21, 2004. He contends only that his conviction on one of those two offenses should be vacated to avoid "duplicative punishments" because the "two statutory provisions cover the same conduct."*fn2 Agreeing with this contention, the District asks us to direct the trial court to vacate the OWI conviction on remand. We shall accede to the parties' wishes. While this court has held that OWI is not a lesser-included offense of DUI,*fn3 the District, in essence, concedes that the two offenses are so closely related that they should be considered alternates, precluding punishment for both.*fn4

Santos also contends that there was insufficient evidence of his mens rea to support his conviction for operating a motor vehicle without a permit. More specifically, Santos argues that the District did not prove that he knew prior to his arrest that his driving privileges had been suspended, and hence failed to prove that he violated the statute with a criminal intent. The trial court ruled that operating without a permit is a strict liability offense for which proof of mens rea is not required.

We agree that knowledge and intent are not elements of the offense. Consequently, we affirm Santos's conviction.

D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) states that "no individual shall operate a motor vehicle in the District, except as provided in § 50-1401.02, without first having obtained" a District of Columbia operator's permit, learner's permit, or provisional permit. The statute authorizes a maximum fine of $300 or up to 90 days' imprisonment for each violation. A temporary exemption from the D.C. permit requirement is provided in D.C. Code § 50-1401.02 (2001 & Supp. 2007) for non-residents who have "complied with" the applicable driver's licensing laws of another jurisdiction.*fn5

At the time of his arrest in this case, Santos, a resident of Virginia, had not obtained a driver's permit from the District of Columbia. This was established at trial by records of the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles. Santos had obtained a driver's license from Virginia, which he produced to the arresting officer. His possession of this license did not prove that Santos had met the conditions of the non-resident exemption, however.*fn6 At trial, the government introduced a certified copy of Santos's driver history record issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The official record revealed that Santos's Virginia driver's license was suspended on November 10, 2004, following his conviction for a traffic violation in the General District Court of Fairfax County on October 20, 2004. The Virginia record also disclosed that Santos had a history of earlier traffic convictions and license suspensions. Santos did not dispute these facts, nor did he contest the legality or the effective date of his November 10 suspension. The trial court consequently found that Santos had not "complied with" Virginia law within the meaning of D.C. Code § 50-1401.02 (a) when he drove his car on November 21, 2004, eleven days after his Virginia driver's license had been suspended. The evidence at trial thus seemingly proved that Santos had operated a motor vehicle in the District of Columbia in violation of D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d).*fn7

However, as Santos argued and the trial court acknowledged, the evidence did not show that he intentionally violated the D.C. law. On the contrary, although Santos did not testify, there was evidence that he might not have known at the time of his drunk driving arrest that his Virginia driver's license had been suspended. Santos's Virginia driver history record states that he was "not present" at the Fairfax County General District Court on October 20, 2004, when he was convicted of the traffic offense that resulted in the suspension of his license. The somewhat cryptic driver history record further states that notification of the suspension was mailed to Santos but was "unclaimed," indicating that he did not receive it. Finally, the record states that an unidentified "DMV representative" notified Santos of his license suspension on December 6, 2004 -- implying that Santos did not hear of the suspension until after his arrest in the District.*fn8

Santos does not assert any constitutional bar to a statute imposing strict criminal liability without regard to scienter for driving without a license, nor could we conclude that such a bar exists.*fn9 In general, the "definition of the elements of a criminal offense is entrusted to the legislature."*fn10

Thus, whether D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) requires proof of guilty knowledge, as Santos contends, or, instead, creates a strict liability offense, as the government argues and the trial court ruled, is a question of statutory interpretation. We review the trial court's resolution of that question de novo.*fn11

On its face, D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) makes it a misdemeanor to operate a motor vehicle without a permit irrespective of scienter. Mens rea is not an element of the offense as statutorily defined; nor does the motorist's state of mind figure into the statutory exemption for non-residents who have "complied with" the licensing laws of another jurisdiction.*fn12

Ordinarily, where the language of a statute "is plain, and . . . the law is within the constitutional authority of the law-making body which passed it, the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms."*fn13 But where, as here, a criminal statute is silent on the question of mens rea, it is subject to a "common law presumption in favor of requiring a culpable state of mind . . . ."*fn14 This presumption is not conclusive, however. Often, "where the legislature is acting in its capacity to regulate public welfare, silence can be construed as a legislative choice to dispense with the mens rea requirement."*fn15

As we discussed in McNeely, the Supreme Court has identified four considerations, in addition to the text of the statute itself, that may be helpful in determining whether the legislature intended to create a strict liability offense: "(1) the contextual rules of the common law; (2) whether the crime can be characterized as a 'public welfare offense' created by the legislature; (3) the extent to which a strict liability reading of the statute would seemingly encompass entirely innocent conduct; and (4) the harshness of the penalty."*fn16 In the present case, we think these considerations indicate that the legislature intended strict liability.

Although criminal liability at common law generally required proof of scienter, that requirement frequently has been relaxed or omitted for so-called "public welfare offenses" created by the legislature to regulate potentially dangerous activities, especially where the purpose of the prohibition "would be obstructed by a requirement of proof of culpable intent."*fn17 Operating a motor vehicle without a permit is such an offense. It is not a crime derived from common law, but rather is part of a modern regulatory framework that places the onus on motorists to obtain and maintain permits so as to protect the public from unqualified drivers. This court long has recognized that a "moving motor vehicle on a public street . . . is a potential danger," which "Congress intended . . . should be [driven] only by one who has first qualified for and received an operator's permit."*fn18 But requiring the government to muster evidence proving the non-compliant motorist's culpable mental state beyond a reasonable doubt would impair the effectiveness of the criminal sanction for violating the permit requirement.

Furthermore, we perceive no serious risk that strict liability for driving without a permit will encompass "entirely innocent conduct." Driver's licensing schemes are ubiquitous and familiar to all motorists, and compliance with their requirements is not onerous.*fn19 Disregard for the obligation to have a valid permit to drive is not entirely innocent conduct, therefore, even if it reflects carelessness rather than deliberate flouting of the law. In addition, a driver's license cannot be suspended or revoked without due process, including both fair notice of a traffic violation charge and the potential penalties, and the right to a hearing.*fn20 Admittedly, no system of procedural protections is perfect. Nonetheless, we think it extremely unlikely that any motorist justifiably will be unaware of the lawful forfeiture of his or her driving privileges.*fn21

Lastly, a violation of D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) is only a misdemeanor, punishable by at most a $300 fine or a 90-day jail term. As the Supreme Court explained in Staples, whereas "a severe penalty [would] suggest that [the legislature] did not intend to eliminate a mens rea requirement,"*fn22 the lightness of the potential penalties supports the inference that strict liability was intended.*fn23

In view of the foregoing considerations and the plain language of the statute, we hold that operating a motor vehicle without a permit in violation of D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) is a strict liability offense that does not require scienter. To convict Santos of that offense, therefore, the District did not have to prove that he knew his Virginia driver's license had been suspended.

Accordingly, we affirm Santos's convictions, except that we remand the case with directions to vacate his duplicative conviction for OWI.

So ordered.

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