In most states, having your driver’s license suspended or revoked is a consequence reserved for only the most significant driving misdeeds. DWI and DUI, reckless driving, or racking up multiple speeding tickets in a short period of time are common examples.
Drivers in North Carolina may be more likely to find themselves with a suspended or revoked license. Seemingly minor traffic charges or forgetting to pay a small court cost or fee could result in a license suspension. Given how often this type of punishment occurs in North Carolina, it is disturbingly common for drivers to hit the road without any idea they aren’t legally allowed to drive.
The primary reason for this problem is notice. “Notice” essentially means letting the driver know that his license is, or is about to be, suspended. Under North Carolina law, all the DMV has to do to provide notice under N.C.G.S. § 20-48, is to mail a letter to the driver informing him or her of the suspension and then wait four days. That’s it. The suspension will begin regardless of whether or not the driver actually received the letter or knew about it.
Even if the letter is delayed or lost in the mail, the penalty is still effective after the four day waiting period. All that matters is that the letter was mailed and four days went by.
So what happens if you are pulled over and an officer informs you that your license is suspended? The fact that you were unaware of the suspension probably won’t prevent the officer from charging you with Driving With License Revoked (DWLR). This is a misdemeanor charge that requires a mandatory court appearance.
If the basis for the suspension is related to an impaired driving offense, the DWLR is a Class 1 Misdemeanor and can cause further suspension of your license. If the DWLR is not related to impaired driving, it is a Class 3 Misdemeanor and, fortunately, will not by itself result in further suspension, but it can still cause a major headache.
The good news is that being unaware of a suspension is a valid defense to a DWLR charge. While North Carolina law says that dropping a notice in the mail is good enough to start the suspension, the Court of Appeals recently clarified that this alone may not be enough to support a DWLR conviction in court. Why? Because conviction of DWLR requires something called “actual notice.” This means the driver must actually know that there is a suspension, either by actually receiving the letter or by some other means. Dropping it in the mail isn’t enough.
In State v. Green, an officer pulled over the Defendant, Mr. Green, in Mecklenburg County for having an expired tag. The officer also cited Mr. Green for Driving with License Revoked for an impaired-related offense. Mr. Green claimed that he did not know his license was revoked. The reason? Mr. Green testified that he lived with his father, who happened to have the same first and last name. Mr. Green’s father likely opened or discarded any letters sent by the DMV, and the Defendant never actually saw them.
The trial court judge instructed the jury that mailing the letters to the Defendant and waiting four days was all that the state needed for a conviction. The North Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed. Because Mr. Green testified that he never got any letters about the suspension, he effectively rebutted the presumption that the letters made it into his hands and he actually had notice. The state could not rely solely on the fact that the letters were mailed, and therefore his conviction was vacated and a new trial was ordered.
The bottom line: an experienced attorney can help you avoid a DWLR conviction, particularly in cases where you did not realize that your license was suspended. Timing is crucial in defending a DWLR charge, so make sure you contact an experienced NC attorney as soon as you are aware of an issue.