ILNews

Court accepts habitual traffic violator case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Supreme Court decided Thursday to consider a case that presents an issue of first impression regarding an Operating While being a Habitual Traffic Violator statute.

In the case State of Indiana v. Karl D. Jackson, 29A02-0610-CR-867, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles determined in 2003 that Karl D. Jackson was a habitual traffic violator and suspended his license. The state agency mailed a notice to Jackson, but he hadn't notified the BMV that he had moved so he never received it.

A Carmel police officer stopped Jackson in January 2005, arrested him for driving with a suspended license, and the state eventually charged him with being a habitual traffic offender. But Jackson obtained an acquittal from the trial court because he didn't have actual knowledge that his license was suspended because of his habitual status; only that his license was suspended. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed in April.

This case gives the justices a chance to revisit an unresolved issue from a 1999 ruling dealing with the Operating While being a Habitual Traffic Violator (OWHTV) statute. In Stewart v. State, 721 N.E. 2d 876, 879 (Ind. 1999), the court held that the state needed to prove the act of driving, that a license suspension or HTV adjudication had happened, and that the defendant "knew or should have known" about the suspension. But that holding left open whether the state must prove the defendant actually knew his license was merely suspended or that it was because of his HTV status.

"The plain language of the statute is ambiguous as to whether the State must show that defendants know of their status as an HTV, or know merely that their license is suspended," Judge Margret Robb wrote in the 18-page ruling in April. "It would create an inconsistent result to interpret the statute to require that the State must prove that the defendant merely knew his or her license was suspended, but that the rebuttable presumption arises only upon proof of proper notice of the defendant's status as an HTV, and not upon proof of mere notice of a suspension."

Judge Robb added, "These considerations, along with the requirement that we construe penal statutes strictly against the State and resolve ambiguities in favor of the accused, lead us to hold that the OWHTV statute requires that the State prove the defendant knew his or her license was suspended because of that person's status as an HTV."

The appellate court ruled that a defendant's failure to notify the BMV of a change in address doesn't leave that person without the ability to rebut the presumption of knowledge.
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