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Rachel E. Loftus v. District of Columbia

September 13, 2012

RACHEL E. LOFTUS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CTF-19994-09) (Hon. Anthony C. Epstein, Trial Judge)

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

Argued October 6, 2011

Before FISHER and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

Appellant Rachel E. Loftus, who was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while her District of Columbia driver‟s license was suspended,*fn1 contends that the trial court improperly omitted the element of mens rea when instructing the jury. Appellant asserts that the government should have been required to prove "that she knew or had reason to know that her license was suspended before she was arrested." The District of Columbia responds that the operating after suspension (OAS) statute creates a strict liability offense, and that mens rea need not be proven. We conclude that we are bound by Santos v. District of Columbia,940 A.2d 113 (D.C. 2007), to uphold the District‟s position.*fn2

I. Background

On August 31, 2009, Anacostia Park Ranger Susan Bennett found Rachel Loftus sitting in a parked car with the motor running, beeping her car horn continuously. When Ranger Bennett asked appellant if she needed help, Ms. Loftus "aggressively exploded out of the car." Appellant staggered as she walked, exhibited quick mood swings, and was unable to answer simple questions. Concerned that Loftus might be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Bennett called the United States Park Police. Meanwhile, appellant reentered her vehicle and began slowly driving away. She was stopped by a responding Park Police officer, who then asked to see her license and registration. Appellant told the officer that she had "left the license at home," but provided a District of Columbia Identification Card.An identification check revealed that Ms. Loftus‟s driver‟s license had been suspended, and she was arrested.

At her jury trial, Ms. Loftus objected to the admission of her driver‟s record, which referred to prior DUI convictions.As an alternative to admitting the record, the parties stipulated that "Ms. Rachel Loftus‟s license was suspended in the District of Columbia on August 31, 2009." The government made no effort to prove whether the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) had notified Ms. Loftus that her license had been suspended. Ms. Loftus elected not to testify.

After the government had rested its case, appellant moved for a judgment of acquittal on the grounds that the government had failed to prove Ms. Loftus "knew or had reason to know" that her license had been suspended. Reasoning that mens rea is not an element of OAS, the court denied appellant‟s motion and delivered the standard "Red Book" jury instruction, which does not include a scienter requirement.*fn3 The jury convicted appellant of OAS, as well as DUI and OWI. Appellant subsequently moved to vacate her OAS conviction. Finding Santos v. District of Columbia, 940 A.2d 113 (D.C. 2007), to be controlling, the trial court denied the motion to vacate "because the OAS statute does not have a scienter requirement."

II. Discussion

In Santos v. District of Columbia, decided just five years ago, this court held "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." 940 A.2d at 118. Ms. Loftus was convicted of a different, but related, crime, operating a motor vehicle while her license was suspended (OAS), in violation of D.C. Code § 50-1403.01 (e).*fn4 However, because the facts and reasoning of Santos are not meaningfully distinguishable from those of this case, we are bound by the holding in Santos.*fn5

A. Santos v. District of Columbia

Santos involved a Virginia resident with a suspended Virginia driver‟s license who was pulled over for drunk driving in the District and subsequently convicted of operating a vehicle without a permit (OWP), in violation of D.C. Code § 50-1401.01 (d) (2007 Supp.). 940 A.2d at 114. Had his Virginia license not been suspended, Santos would have qualified for the exemption that allows holders of valid out-of-state driver‟s licenses to operate a vehicle in the District of Columbia. See D.C. Code § 50-1401.02 (a) (2007 Supp.). At trial, the government did not present evidence that, prior to his arrest, Santos received notification from the Virginia DMV that his driver‟s license had been suspended.*fn6 Id. Thus, like appellant, "Santos argue[d] 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." Id. at 114. Santos asked this court to reverse his conviction for OWP on the grounds that the government had failed to prove mens rea. Instead, the court concluded that mens rea was not an element of OWP and affirmed Santos‟s conviction. Id. at 118.

The facts of Santos are strikingly similar to those in this case. As in Santos, there is no disagreement that appellant at one point was issued a valid driver‟s license. Santos and appellant were both convicted after driving on suspended licenses, and in neither case did the trial court require the government to prove that the individuals knew that their licenses had been suspended. The only ...


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