If you regularly tune into the evening news or pick up a daily paper, you could be forgiven for thinking the most common offenses encountered by Broward law enforcement are things like shootouts, sexual assaults and gang crimes. Reality check: One of the most common (if not THE most common) is an offense known as “Driving With a Suspended License.” In Florida, if you are caught driving with a license that is suspended or revoked, it could be considered a serious criminal charge, accompanied by long-term negative consequences for one’s driving privileges and criminal record. But what you also may not know is that prosecutors bear the burden of proof in these cases, and if they cannot prove you knew or should have known your license was suspended, it becomes a relatively minor traffic offense.
The statute to which we refer – F.S. 322.34 – details the penalty for driving with a suspended license, which requires knowledge of the suspension, revocation or cancellation. It can result in a jail sentence of up to two months, plus a $500 fine. A second offense is considered a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail. A third or subsequent offense is considered a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison (yes – state prison), and a fine of up to $5,000. If that third offense is committed within a five-year period of the other two, you will be considered a habitual traffic offender, which further results in a driver’s license revocation that lasts 5 years. You might be eligible to obtain a hardship license – but only after one full year elapses from your most recent conviction.
If you’re on probation, you could be in serious trouble for driving with a suspended license. Consider the case of Stringfield v. State, weighed by Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal in August. Defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison after the court revoked his probation upon finding he broke the law when he drove his motor vehicle while his license was suspended. This may seem like a stunning miscarriage of justice, but it was perfectly legal – except that defendant successfully appealed on the issue of “knowledge.”
Knowledge of Your Suspension
If you know your driver’s license is suspended and you’re driving anyway, it is a crime. But how can a prosecutor possibly get into your head? In order to prove “knowledge” in a Florida driving while suspended case, prosecutors need to show:
- Defendant’s license was suspended at the relevant time;
- Defendant had knowledge of the license suspension (he/ she admits to knowledge OR received notice – one reason why you should NEVER admit to knowing this if you’re pulled over, even if you do);
- Defendant was actually driving.
In other words, it’s fairly easy for prosecutors to establish knowledge in a DWLS case.
However, as our criminal defense attorneys in Broward County can explain, it’s also not impossible to challenge. Take for instance the Stringfield case. The fifth DCA reversed that 15-year sentence, finding that the state failed to prove a “willful, substantial violation of probation.” Accordingly, the sentence was reversed and remanded with instructions. In this case, there was no evidence presented that defendant admitted to knowledge of the suspension. The state hypothesized the defendant should have been notified of the suspension in a number of ways BUT failed offer any competent, substantial evidence of that notice being provided by any of the means suggested. Therefore, the state failed to prove knowledge of the suspension and thus failed to establish a new law violation – and thus his 15-year prison sentence was reversed and he was ordered to be restored to probation.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Stringfield v. State, Aug. 31, 2018, Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal
More Blog Entries:
Can I See What’s In Your Trunk?: Consent Searches in Miami-Dade County, July 5, 2018, Broward Defense Lawyer Suspended License Blog