Thursday, September 8, 2011

Revoked License Conviction Overturned--note to DUI practitioners

In this Williamson County case Richard Brown contends (1) that the trial court improperly found him guilty of driving on a revoked license when the indictment charged him with driving on a suspended license and (2) that he could not be convicted of driving on a revoked license because the Department of Safety never revoked his license.

On May 3, 2010, the trial court held a bench trial. The State and the Defendant stipulated to the following facts: The defendant was convicted of Driving Under the Influence on March 5, 2008, and sentence imposed on September 15, 2008, and under special condition on the judgment was entered “2 year license suspension.”  Assistant Attorney General Kelly Lawrence observed the defendant driving on October 9, 2008, and caused an arrest warrant to issue for Driving on a Suspended License, and the defendant was taken into custody pursuant to that warrant. The defendant was indicted for Driving on a Suspended License on July 13, 2009. The Department of Safety shows no formal action suspending the defendant’s license from March 5, 2008 to present and shows that [the defendant] had and still has a valid license. The trial court took [the defendant’s] license after conviction for the DUI second offense referenced above. The clerk’s office returned the license to Mr. Brown pending appeal.

Based upon these facts, the trial court convicted the Defendant of driving while his license was revoked with a prior DUI conviction.  The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and dismissed the charge against Mr. Brown.

Because driving under the influence is a serious offense which can result in tragic and life-altering consequences for the defendant and innocent victims, we understand the legislature’s decision to create two separate and distinct methods of banning a defendant from driving. One is a prohibition on driving issued by the trial court and meant to serve as a punishment for the defendant’s DUI conviction. The other is an administrative action revoking the defendant’s driver’s license and meant to protect the citizens of Tennessee. It is baffling to this court as to why the legislature chose not to include the trial court’s prohibition on driving as part of section 55-50-504 in order to criminalize violations of the prohibition. However, the statute is clearly limited to the Department of Safety’s power to revoke, suspend, or cancel a license. Because the Defendant’s license was never actually revoked by the Department of Safety, he could not have been convicted of driving on a revoked license. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and dismiss the Defendant’s conviction for driving on a revoked license.

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