Driving on a Suspended License is one of the most common charges that causes people to appear in the District Court in Maryland. I appear as a criminal defense attorney almost on a daily bases in these cases. Many first offenders are surprised to find out that a person can actually go to jail for driving while suspended, even if suspended for what seems to be a relatively minor reason. Before I get into what a person should do prior to court if they are charged with driving while suspended in Maryland, let me first describe the most common reasons why a person’s license might be suspended and the penalties associated with each type.
By far the most common reason that a person may end up having his license suspended is for failure to appear in the District Court for a minor traffic violation. Anyone who has ever been to minor traffic court knows that many people fail to appear for their court date. When someone fails to appear in court, even for something as minor as a seat belt ticket, the Motor Vehicle Administration is notified and the person’s license is suspended. In Maryland the maximum penalty for driving while suspended for this reason is 60 days in jail and a fine of $500. A person’s license can also be suspended for failing to pay a fine or failing to appear in court for a ticket received in another state. This did not used to be the case. It used to be that the person’s privilege would only be suspended in the state in which that person failed to pay the fine. Today under what is known as the Interstate Compact, the state in which the person is licensed will be notified of the failure to pay the fine or of the failure to appear in court by the state where the violation occurred and the person’s license is suspended.
Probably the next most common reason that people have their licenses suspended is for failure to pay child support. After that, accumulation of points, conviction of an alcohol related offense and failure to pay a civil judgment related to an automobile accident are the probably the most common reasons that a person’s license can be suspended. These violations are considered more serious and carry a maximum penalty of one year and a fine of $1000. Repeat offenders can receive up to 3 years under certain circumstances if the state files for enhanced penalties. A person who has medical issues such as seizures or who has multiple alcohol related offenses may have his or her license suspended indefinitely by the Medical Advisory Board.
Now, what should a person do if charged with driving while suspended? First of all, the person should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. Although incarceration is not common for first offenders, it does happen and repeat offenders are incarcerated on a regular basis. In addition to advising a person on how to have their license reinstated, an experienced attorney can often successfully defend a person by demonstrating that the person was not properly notified of the suspension (this is an element of the offense that must be proven by the state), that the police officer unlawfully stopped the person charged, or any of the other many defenses to this charge. I would estimate that in at least 25% of the cases, either the MVA or the police did not do what is required for the state to obtain a conviction. There are also many instances in which an attorney can simply convince the state that the violation is not worthy of prosecution or work out a plea to a lesser charge that does not carry incarceration.
The second thing a person should do is to find out why he or she is suspended and try to rectify the situation prior to court. I realize that this seems like common sense but it is amazing how many people come to court, often months after receiving the driving while suspended citation, with their license is still suspended, even in cases in which it is a relatively simple matter to have their license reinstated. For instance, if the person is suspended for failure to pay a fine or failure to appear in court, getting reinstated is usually a simple matter of going to any District Court location, paying the fine and then presenting the receipt to the MVA. For child support suspensions, it is usually not difficult to work out a payment plan with the Division of Child Support and at least receive a work restricted license. The same is true for civil judgment suspensions. It is usually just a matter of contacting the collection attorney or agency and either paying the judgment off in a lump sum, often for less than the total amount of the judgment, or working out a payment plan.
Suspensions for accumulation of points or convictions for alcohol related offenses can be more difficult to rectify but they not impossible. Sometimes it is just a matter of attending a driver improvement class or an alcohol class. One can also appeal suspensions of this variety to the Office of Administrative Hearings and receive either a restricted license or a license requiring the use of the ignition interlock device. There is a time limit to file these appeals though and if the time limit has expired, then that option is not available.
The bottom line is that driving while suspended is a serious offense for which a person can be incarcerated but if the matter is addressed proactively and the person is represented by qualified counsel, the penalties can be significantly reduced if not eliminated altogether.