Appellate Court of Maryland: To Prove Driving On A Revoked License, the State Must Prove Knowledge of Revocation

Section 16-303(d) of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code criminalizes driving while your “license or privilege to drive is revoked in this State.” A new reported opinion from the Appellate Court of Maryland clarifies that to obtain a conviction for driving on a revoked license, the State must prove that the driver knew or was willfully blind to the fact of his or her revocation.

The case, Christian Eric Adkins v. State of Maryland, involved a challenge to the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury that the State needed to prove that the driver had knowledge of his revocation. Rather than give the instruction, the judge simply read the statute, which does not specifically mention the knowledge element. The Appellate Court of Maryland held that the requested instruction should have been given because the statute requires proof of knowledge to convict.

This is a sound decision as a matter of common sense and prior case law governing similar offenses. The Court relied on cases analyzing Transportation Article, § 16-303(c), which governs the offense of driving on a suspended license.  Those cases interpret the suspension statute as requiring knowledge as an essential element of the offense because “mens rea is required for the charge of driving while suspended.”’ Steward v. State, 218 Md. App. 550, 560 (2014) (quoting State v. McCallum, 321 Md. 451, 457 (1991)).  As explained in Steward, “the State must present evidence that the defendant either had actual knowledge that his or her drivers’ license was suspended, or that the defendant was deliberately ignorant or willfully blind to the suspension.” Id. In fact, Transportation Article § 12-114(a) provides that the MVA will give notice by either personal delivery to the person to be notified or by mail to the person at the address of the person on record with the MVA. Therefore, in the usual case, the State may be able to prove that a driver had knowledge.

The Court reasoned that § 16-303(d) (driving on a revoked license) “requires an identical interpretation for those driving on a revoked license.” Indeed, as the Appellate Court observed, the suspension and revocation offenses used to be included in the same sentence under an earlier version of the Transportation Article.  See Md. Code (1977), Transp. Art. § 16-303 (“A person may not drive a motor vehicle on any highway in this State while his license or privilege to drive is refused, canceled, suspended or revoked.”).

In 1986, the General Assembly split up this family of offenses but in a non-substantive way. Noting that the statutory provisions were “poster children for the in pari materia” doctrine, the Appellate court could “think of no reason why a suspended license should be treated differently than revocation for purposes of elements of proof.” See Chen v. State, 370 Md. 99, 106 (2002) (“Two statutory provisions concerning the same subject matter are considered to be in pari materia and must be interpreted accordingly.”). Therefore, the State must prove that a defendant accused of driving on a revoked license had knowledge (or willful blindness) of the revocation as part of the State’s proof under § 16-303(d).

But the decision in Adkins will be of cold comfort to that driver. Although the Appellate Court concluded that the trial judge erred by declining to give the requested jury instruction, that error was harmless because there was no dispute that Adkins knew his license was revoked. Indeed, he stipulated that his license was revoked on the date of the incident and that he was notified 3 times of the revocation. Therefore, knowledge of the revocation was not in dispute in this case.

The attorneys at Silverman Thompson have decades of experience defending criminal charges, handling criminal appeals, and representing drivers in the courts of Maryland and in the Office of Administrative Hearings. For more information about how we may assist you, please contact Michael J. Levin at or (443) 909-7544.

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