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Florida Court Appears to Change the Florida Law Pertaining to Driving With a Suspended License as a Habitual Traffic Offender

In Florida, driving with a suspended or revoked license is not a particularly serious charge, as a first time charge, but it can lead to more serious charges and more serious penalties. A driving with a suspended or revoked license (DWLS) charge can also quickly snowball into a situation where a person has a longer suspension which leads to more DWLS charges which leads to longer suspensions. If things get out of hand, a person can face five years or more of a license suspension and fines and costs to pay with no way to drive to work to pay those costs.  Prosecutors and judges handle a lot of DWLS cases. It may be the most common type of case in county (misdemeanor) court in Florida. And while judges and prosecutors do not care much about them when a person has a minimal record, multiple DWLS charges can result in serious penalties. In fact, if a person has a few DWLS convictions in his/her past, that person can be charged with a felony for the next DWLS violation. Once a person is in circuit (felony) court, it’s not uncommon to face months in jail for the less serious offenses those prosecutors and judges see.

In order for the state to prove that a defendant is guilty of a DWLS crime, the state normally has to prove three things – that the defendant was seen driving, that his/her license was suspended or revoked at the time and that he/she knew or was given notice that his/her license was suspended or revoked at the time.  Usually, parts one and two are easy, but not everyone knows their license is suspended.  A person may have received a traffic ticket and thought it was paid or thought a driving course took care of it, but for some reason, the ticket was not resolved. If a traffic ticket is not paid, the DHSMV will eventually suspend the driver’s license. They should send notice to the driver in the mail, but a person might move or otherwise not receive it.

A habitual traffic offender in Florida is someone with three serious driving violations within five years. A serious driving violation is a DUI, a driving with a suspended license criminal violation (or civil violation with a conviction) and/or two many points from regular traffic violations. If a person becomes a habitual traffic offender, his/her driver’s license will be suspended for five years. As you can see, getting multiple DWLS charges or citations can lead to longer suspensions. It can also lead to felony charges and jail time for future violations.

In a recent driving while license suspended case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was convicted of DWLS as a habitual traffic offender. His criminal defense lawyer appealed arguing that the state failed to establish at the trial that the DHSMV ever provided notice to the defendant that his license had been revoked as a habitual traffic offender. The criminal defense attorney alleged that the state had the burden to prove the defendant knew his license had been revoked. After all, a person should not be convicted of a serious, although technical, crime if the state cannot prove the defendant knew he was doing something wrong. Of course, most people who are at the habitual traffic offender stage will know their license is suspended, but the DHSMV is not the most organized and well-run government agency, and there are situations where they make mistakes or just do not properly inform people of their status.

Unfortunately for the defendant, the Florida statute for DWLS as a habitual traffic offender (a third degree felony in Florida) only requires that a person drive while his/her license was suspended or revoked as a habitual traffic offense. The statute does not require that the DHSMV notify the defendant of his/her status. However, an older Florida case added notice from the DHSMV as an element of the offense. Other courts adopted this requirement which forced the state to prove the DHSMV had notified a defendant of his/her habitual traffic offender status. However, for whatever reason, this court decided to reverse many cases which required the state to prove notice in these habitual traffic offender cases. Going forward, at least in this district, the state only needs to prove the defendant was driving and his/her license was suspended or revoked as a habitual traffic offender to convict a person of a felony DWLS charge. If the person was never given notice of the habitual traffic offender status or otherwise did not know of his/her status, that no longer appears relevant to these cases as a defense or limitation on the state.