Defending due process in the DC Court of Appeals

Defending due process in the DC Court of Appeals

On September 21, 2017, a panel of the DC Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of Nigel Barrella’s client, who had been convicted of driving with a revoked license, even though the DC DMV never sent him notice of the revocation. Nigel had argued his client’s case before the court in October 2016.

In this case, the DC government had argued that because operating after revocation is a so-called “strict liability” crime, it did not matter whether the DMV had sent him notice that they were revoking his license, or whether he received that notice. The government maintained that all it had to prove for a conviction was that his license was revoked and that he was driving in DC.

Nigel argued that the regulations required the DMV to send notice, and that due process (i.e. the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution) also requires it. The Court of Appeals agreed that the DMV’s regulations required them to send notice, and the court also held that failure to receive notice could be treated as a defense to operating after suspension or revocation.

In future cases when motorists are charged with this crime, the DMV should be prepared to prove that they provided notice of their action revoking or suspending the license. DMV regulations already required record-keeping of notices sent to motorists.

Anecdotes from many motorists suggest that the DC DMV frequently has not been sending notices in the manner required by regulation. Going forward, the Court’s ruling creates an important incentive for the DMV to carry out its duties in a manner consistent with due process.

Bottom line: if the DC DMV does not send notice to motorists, it should not expect to be able to prosecute the motorists who are (unknowingly) driving without a valid license. That’s not just common sense anymore — it’s the law.

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