RICE V. STATE

This is an audio case brief of Rice v. State, 766 A.2d 663 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents

FACTS

Defendant William Rice was convicted of Driving while his license was suspended. Here are the facts which led to his suspension.

Officer Rukamp, of the Howard County Police Department, testified that on September 24, 1999, at 11:20 p.m., he was on patrol in a marked police cruiser on Ducketts Lane, near Karas Walk, in Howard County. He saw the driver of a black car speed down Karas Walk, fail to stop for a stop sign, make a U-turn, and speed back down Karas Walk in the direction from which he had come. Officer Rukamp followed the driver, who continued to speed. Eventually, the driver turned into the driveway of the house at 6192 Karas Walk. Officer Rukamp pulled into the driveway behind the black car and turned on his emergency lights. The driver jumped out of the car, ran to the front door of the house, and banged on it, yelling to be let in. The door opened and he ran inside.

Rice, the defendant, was the driver of the black car. Officer Rukamp was familiar with Rice and Rice’s wife from prior encounters with them at the Karas Walk house. After Rise ran into the house, Officer Rukamp went to the front door and knocked. Rice’s wife answered the door and opened it. Officer Rukamp looked into the house and saw Rice,  drinking a beer,  and walking toward the front door. Rice told Officer Rukamp that he “wasn’t driving and [Officer Rukamp] couldn’t prove it.” Officer Rukamp asked for Rice’s driver’s license and registration. Rice said, “No.” Officer Rukamp repeated the request, and Rice again responded, “No.” Officer Rukamp asked Rice’s wife to retrieve his driver’s license and registration, which she did. Officer Rukamp then checked and ascertained that Rice’s license had been suspended by the Motor Vehicle Administration (“MVA”). He placed Rice under arrest for driving while suspended.

After his arrest, Rice gave Officer Rukamp information about himself, including his address. The address he gave was 6192 Karas Walk, the same address at which he was arrested. That address also was the address on Rice’s driver’s license.

A trial was held for Rice on the recent arrest and charge of driving while suspended on July 18, 2000. During Officer Rukamp’s testimony, the State moved into evidence, without objection, a computer print-out of Rice’s driving record, from the MVA. The record shows that on March 18, 1998, about a year before his recent arrest, Rice’s driver’s license was suspended for refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test. That suspension was withdrawn on July 15, 1998. On January 28, 1999, appellant was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. He was tried and convicted of that charge on June 2, 1999, and was assessed eight points. Thereafter, on August 5, 1999, the MVA sent appellant a letter notifying him that unless he requested a hearing in ten days of the date the letter was mailed, his driver’s license would be suspended. This notice of suspension letter was sent by certified mail. On August 20, 1999, appellant’s license was suspended for six months. On August 30, 1999, the certified notice of suspension letter to appellant was returned to the MVA by the United States Postal Service.

The address reflected on the computer print-out of Rice’s driving record as of July 16, 2000 (the date of the computer print-out) was 8715 Bryant Court, Bowie, Maryland.  The computer print-out states that an address change was made on July 8, 2000, ten days before the trial date.

Rice testified in his own defense. He admitted driving on the night in question, but stated that he had not known, at that time, that his driver’s license was suspended. He also acknowledged that 6192 Karas Walk was his marital home but explained that he and his wife had been having marital problems and he was not living in the house during the period preceding his arrest. Instead, he was staying with his father and his sister.

According to Rice, his wife did not tell him about any correspondence for him  from the MVA, and during the pertinent time frame he did not receive any mail at the Karas Walk address. Also, at some unspecified point in time, Rice’s wife went to Virginia for three weeks, and was not collecting the mail at the Karas Walk address. Rice went to that house “very seldom” and “wasn’t concerned about too much in the mail.” He happened to be at the house on the night in question because it was “the first night that [he and his] wife . . . had been back together.” Finally, Rice stated that he “had no idea” after the court proceeding of June 2, 1999, that his license was going to be suspended.

The trail court did not find Rice’s testimony to credible. Rice was convicted of driving while his license was suspended.

Rice challenged his conviction. He argued that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction because it could not support a finding of the mens rea – – i.e., criminal intent – – element of the crime of driving while suspended. Specifically, he argued that there was no evidence that on the night in question he knew that his driver’s license was suspended; therefore, there was no evidence to support a finding that he intended to drive while his license was suspended.

ISSUE

The issue before the court is whether Rice had knowledge that his driver’s license had been suspended.

RULE

Actual knowledge and deliberate ignorance or willful blindness are two forms of knowledge. A person has actual knowledge when he or she has actual awareness or actual belief that a fact exists. Deliberate ignorance or willful blindness on the other hand exits when a person believes that it is probable that something is a fact, but deliberately shuts his or her eyes or avoids making reasonable inquiry with a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth. Id. Deliberate ignorance requires a conscious purpose to avoid enlightenment.

APPLICATION

The court begun its analysis by discussing the procedure through which the Motor Vehicle Administration delivers the notice of suspension through certified mail. Here is how a notice is delivered by certified mail.

When a letter is sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, the United States Postal Service delivers to the addressee a green card stating that the certified letter is at the post office, and giving the name of the sender. The letter itself is not delivered; rather, the addressee must go to the post office to claim it, and must sign a return receipt for it. If no one claims the letter at the post office within 15 days, the United States Postal Service returns it to the sender.

The court found that the mens rea requirement for driving while suspense is not actual knowledge gained from the receipt of suspension letter served by mail. If that were the case, the certified mail requirement of that statute would make service by mail useless and ineffectual in virtually every case in which a person’s privilege to drive was legitimately subject to suspension. A person having reason to think that his driving privilege was being threatened with suspension would have no incentive to go to the post office to collect his certified letter; to the contrary, he would have every incentive to avoid doing so because  by not collecting the certified letter, he could claim lack of knowledge and thereby insulate himself from a successful prosecution for driving while suspended. It would make no difference that his lack of knowledge was self-imposed. Nor would it make any difference that, given his already existing awareness that his right to drive might be subject to suspension, the delivery  [**670]  of a green card informing him that the MVA had a letter for him at the post office was tantamount to being placed on actual knowledge that what he had thought likely now was imminent.

We see no meaningful distinction between the state of knowledge of an impending driver’s license suspension that a person gains from reading a certified letter from the MVA to that effect and the state of knowledge of an impending driver’s license suspension that a person gains when, having reason to believe that his privilege to drive may be in jeopardy, he learns that the post office is holding a certified letter for him from the MVA. In the latter situation, the person knows enough about the likely contents of the MVA letter that his unexplained failure to obtain it from the post office is “deliberate ignorance” or “willful blindness.”

In the present case, there was ample evidence of knowledge on Rice’s part sufficient for the court to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, the intent element of the offense of driving while suspended. As the court pointed out, Rice was not a novice in matters pertaining to the MVA. He had had his driving privileges suspended in the past. On June 2, 1999, he was assessed 8 points upon being convicted of driving while under the influence. It is immaterial whether Rice was informed by the court that assessed those points that the law requires the MVA to notify a person who has accumulated 8 points that, absent a request for a hearing, his license will be suspended. “Everyone is ‘presumed to know the law regardless of conscious knowledge or lack thereof, and [is] presumed to intend the necessary and legitimate consequences of [his] actions in its light. Once Rice was convicted of DUI and had 8 points assessed against him, he had reason to believe that the MVA would take action to suspend his driving privilege.

The house on Karas Walk, in which Rice was arrested, was his marital home and he was living there at least part of the time. The evidence established that the Karas Walk address appeared on Rice’s driver’s license, and, accordingly, was the address to which the MVA would have  addressed the certified notice of suspension letter. (Indeed, the evidence established that Rice did not inform the MVA that he had an address other than Karas Walk until July of 2000, eleven months after the suspension letter was sent.) The evidence thus supported a rational finding that the green card notifying Rice that a certified letter to him from the MVA was awaiting collection at the post office was delivered to the house at which Rice was living at least part time. This evidence in turn supported a rational inference that Rice was aware of the existence of the green card, and simply did not go to the post office to pick up the certified letter. This evidence, together with the evidence of Rice knowledge concerning his accumulated points, was sufficient to support a rational  factual finding that any lack of actual knowledge by Rice of the suspension of his privilege to drive was the result of “deliberate ignorance” or “willful blindness” on his part.

CONCLUSION

Rice’s suspension was affirmed.

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