Driving While License Suspended, Criminal Law“Driver’s License While License Suspended, the Gateway Charge”

By: DeMone Lee, Managing Attorney of The Lee Firm, LLC

As a young prosecutor, I prosecuted thousands of driving while license suspended cases.  Often times, my more serious felonies such as resisting an officer with or without violence, possession of drugs and trafficking arose out of driving while license suspended cases.  Much like marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious and addictive drugs, driving while license suspended is a gateway charge to far more serious charges.  For this reason, license suspensions should be taken seriously and dealt with quickly.

In Florida, a license can be suspended for various reasons.  Failure to obtain insurance, failure to pay child support, failure to pay a civil judgment, driving while under the influence and fleeing and attempting to elude are among a few ways that a license can be suspended.  Officers often run tags of vehicles to check and see if the registered owner has a valid license.  When they run your tag, your picture will appear on their D.A.V.I.D. system (Driver And Vehicle Information Database).  Your driving record and license validity will appear on their system as well.  If your license is suspended, legally speaking, they have enough probable cause to stop your vehicle once they confirm that you are the individual driving the vehicle.  Once that happens, your headaches will begin.

You need to be aware of when both your civil liability and criminal liability begins.  Clearly anybody can be ticketed for driving on a suspended license.  Typically, this will happen if you do not have knowledge of your license suspension.  The main and most immediate issue that you will have to concern yourself with at this point is the civil fine and points on your license.  But the secondary and possibly most critical issue that you will have to concern yourself with at this point as well is that you will now have knowledge of your suspension.

An individual that drives on a suspended license with knowledge, for the first time, can be convicted for a 2nd degree misdemeanor punishable for up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.  An individual convicted of driving on a suspended license with knowledge for a second time can be convicted of a 1st degree misdemeanor punishable for up to 12 months in jail and a $1000 fine.  These charges are fairly simple to prove.  All that the State has to show is that you were driving and that you knew that your license was suspended.  Knowledge of your suspension can be easily shown through various ways including: the nature of the suspension, evidence showing that notice of suspension was given to you and of course any admissions that you make.  Remember, statements that you make can and will be used against you.

If you are convicted of a third or more driving on a suspended license within 5 years of the other two convictions, you could be looking at a 3rd degree felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to a $5000 fine as a habitual traffic offender (“HTO”).  This felony kicks in if your license was suspended for a non-financial reason such as possession of drugs (usually a two year suspension), DUI or Fleeing and Attempting to Elude among others.  If your license has only been suspended for a financial obligation such as failure to obtain insurance or failure to pay child support, you will be looking at a first degree misdemeanor.  In most circumstances, the State must also show that you had two prior convictions for driving while license suspended within the five years prior to your new charge.  There are a number of other ways that the State can prove this charge but the manner in which I have laid out is the more typical way the State will prove driving while license suspended HTO.  At this point, if you are charged under this HTO statute, the law does not even require the State to prove that you had knowledge of your license being suspended.  Usually the State will just put on evidence that you were driving, move your driving record into evidence and sit down.  This is a very easy charge to be convicted of and it can have drastic effects on your life.

Misdemeanors may not be all that much of concern for others but for most of us, the thought of a conviction of anything is and should be very frightening experience.  And as stated previously, it often times leads to far more serious charges.  Most of the folks that I used to cut a break for were individuals that had their licenses suspended for financial reasons.  I also required that they bring in a valid license at a later date in order for them to receive my deal.  More reason for you to fix your license even if you have been charged.  Breaks that I used to give would be a straight dismissal or a reduction to a driving without a valid license charge with a fine.  Both options help you in that they do not create a criminal history that makes you more likely to face at a 1st degree misdemeanor or 3rd degree felony charge if you are picked up for a driving while license suspended charge again.

You have to keep your license clean and get it fixed if it is not.  If you have insurance problems, get some cheap PIP insurance.  If you have child support problems, make arrangements to pay.  If you have a DUI conviction or a drug conviction with an adjudication, quickly get a hardship license.  There is a wait period for the hardship license but stay on top of this.  This hardship license will allow you to drive to and from work and/or school.  If the term of your suspension has expired, make sure that you go and get your license reinstated.  A lot of people believe that if their license suspension has expired that their license automatically becomes valid.  Not, so.  You have to pay a reinstatement fee in order to make your license valid.

Furthermore, if you are looking at a non-related drug conviction, fight for a withhold of adjudication even if it means that you have to do a little jail time, house arrest or probation.  A withhold of adjudication will usually help you to keep your license from being suspended for two years by operation of law.  This is a very important point.  It is very easy to take a fine on a misdemeanor possession of cannabis charge and be adjudicated just to get the case over with.  It’s just a little bit of marijuana and money, right?  This is one of the greatest travesties of this law.  If you accept a deal like this, involving an adjudication, your license will be suspended for two years.  This for a crime that is punishable by only 12 months.  Contradictory, isn’t it?  What makes it worse is if you are convicted for a first time DUI you will be looking at merely a 6 month license suspension.  And that’s for an offense that actually involves driving!  This is another reason why our youth and members of our community have to be very careful about the gateway drug of marijuana.

All in all, if you have license issues, seek legal advice and get it fixed.  This by no means is a manual for you to defend yourself in court.  There are way too many variables and legal nuances for you to go it alone.  The purpose of this article is to give you a broad overview of how driving while license suspended cases work and to inform you of your need to seek legal advice and fix your license if it needs fixing.  Attorneys are more than willing to come up with a payment plan and help you to get your license fixed before you get picked up on a driving while license suspended charge.  While driving while license suspended may not seem to be that serious of a charge it is a gateway charge that can lead to far more serious charges.  Take your license seriously.  It’s very difficult to operate in this life without a license, so fight to keep yours clean and if it’s not, fix it.

DeMone Lee is the managing attorney of The Lee Firm, LLC.  “You Call, We Answer!” is not only our slogan.  It is our conviction.  If you have a legal question regarding a matters of personal injury, criminal defense or disability arising in Georgia, we can be reached at (404) 268-7069.  If you have a legal question regarding a matter personal injury, criminal defense or disability arising in Florida, we can be reached at (941) 877-15330.

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