Monday, August 01, 2011

The License, the Citation and the Computer

This post deals with something I’m sure many, if not most, of us have encountered: a traffic ticket. Let’s start with what a traffic ticket – or, in the case we’ll be examining, a traffic citation – is, under the law:

In some jurisdictions, violations of certain traffic rules or regulations which are not misdemeanors or felonies, are denominated traffic infractions. Prosecutions for such infractions are instituted by the filing of an information or complaint or its equivalent, which frequently consists of a printed traffic ticket or similar instrument.

8 American Jurisprudence 2d Automobiles § 956.

The case we’ll be examining arose in the state of Washington, which uses traffic citations for the purpose noted above. A Washington statute states that when any

person is arrested for any violation of the traffic laws . . .which is punishable as a misdemeanor or by imposition of a fine, the arresting officer may serve upon him or her a traffic citation and notice to appear in court. Such citation and notice shall conform to the requirements of [Washington Revised Code § 46.64.010] and . . . shall include spaces for the name and address of the person arrested, the license number of the vehicle involved, the driver's license number of such person, if any, the offense or violation charged, and the time and place where such person shall appear in court. Such spaces shall be filled with the appropriate information by the arresting officer.

Washington Revised Code § 46.64.015.

Washington Revised Code § 46.64.010, cited above, says “[e]very traffic enforcement agency” in the state must “provide in appropriate form traffic citations containing notices to appear which shall be issued in books. . . or issued by an electronic device capable of producing a printed copy and electronic copies of the citations.” Washington Revised Code § 46.64.010(1). The next section of this statute says that a “traffic enforcement officer” who issues a traffic citation to an

alleged violator of any provision of the motor vehicle laws of this state or of any traffic ordinance of any city or town shall deposit the original or a printed or electronic copy of such traffic citation with a court having . . . jurisdiction over the alleged offense or with its traffic violations bureau. . . . [T]he original or copy of such traffic citation may be disposed of only by trial in the court or other official action by a judge of the court. . . .

Washington Revised Code § 46.64.010(2). I suspect other states have similar statutes.

That brings us to City of Spokane v. Taylor, 2011 WL 2714086 (Washington Court of Appeals 2011). The case arose on February 25, 2009, when Joe Taylor, Jr., was stopped for

driving with an expired vehicle license. He provided a Washington identification card. Upon discovering that Taylor had been deemed an habitual traffic offender, the officer issued a criminal citation requiring Mr. Taylor to appear in the Spokane Municipal Court. The front of the citation lists the code violation as `[Revised Code of Washington] 46.20.342.1A.’

Immediately below that notation are the words, `DWLS 3rd.’ Municipal Court Record, Front of Citation. The officer's report concludes, `A [Department of Licensing] check revealed his driver's license to be suspended in the 1st Degree. I then cited him for DWLS 1st.’ Municipal Court Record, Back of Citation.

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

When the clerk of the court with which the citation was filed received it, he/she entered

the offense on the computer as third degree driving while license suspended. Arraignment was scheduled for March 6, 2009. A public defender appeared on behalf of Taylor. The city attorney responsible for the calendar notified the public defender by e-mail that the City of Spokane (City) would be amending the charge to first degree driving while license suspended (DWLS 1).

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

Driving without a license is “a traffic infraction and not a misdemeanor” if the person was “not driving while [their license was] suspended.” Washington Revised Code § 46.20.015. Under Washington law, it’s a “gross misdemeanor” for someone to drive a vehicle while his/her license is suspended. Washington Revised Code § 46.20.342.

Taylor tried to avoid the greater charge. At his arraignment, he asked to enter a

guilty plea to DWLS 3 and his counsel presented a completed statement of [Taylor’s] on plea of guilty. The city attorney asked to amend the charge to DWLS 1. The court heard argument and ruled that a charge of DWLS 3 had been filed. The court denied the motion to amend, accepted the guilty plea, and imposed sentence.

The City sought reconsideration. The court heard argument on the motion, but ultimately denied reconsideration. The City then appealed to [the] superior court pursuant to the [statutory] process.

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The superior court judge

reversed the trial court and vacated the guilty plea. The superior court ruled that the trial court erred by not granting the motion to amend because there was no prejudice to [Taylor]. The court also concluded that there was no factual basis for the guilty plea to DWLS 3.

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

Taylor appealed to the Court of Appeals. City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. On appeal, he argued that (i) “his right to plead guilty at arraignment trumped the City’s motion to amend” the charge and/or (ii) “there was a factual basis for pleading guilty to DWSL 3.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The Court of Appeals noted, first, that Rule 2.4(f) of the state Criminal Rules for state superior courts says a “court may permit . . . a citation . . . to be amended at any time before verdict or finding if substantial rights of the defendant are not prejudiced.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. It also noted that Rule 4.2(a) of the Criminal Rules for superior courts “lists the type of pleas that may be entered including a plea of guilty.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. The Court of Appeals explained that this rule has “been interpreted as creating a right to plead guilty at arraignment.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra (citing State v. Martin, 94 Wn.2d 1, 614 P.2d 164 (Washington Supreme Court 1980)).

Taylor claimed the state Supreme Court’s decision in Martin plus Washington Revised Code § 10.04.070, which says a “defendant may plead guilty to any offense charged” gave him an “absolute right to plead guilty at arraignment, thus outweighing any competing effort to amend the charging document.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. Unfortunately for Taylor, the Court of Appeals did not buy his argument.

Instead, it “agree[d] with the superior court” that the trial court erred in “accepting the guilty plea rather than permit[ting] the amendment.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The basis for the error is found in [Washington Revised Code § 10.04.979] which permits a guilty plea `to any offense charged.’ Taylor assumes that he was charged with DWLS 3 because the court clerk listed that offense in the computer. However, a listing in a computer record is not the same as a charging document stating an offense.

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The Court of Appeals explained that the citation filed against Taylor provided the

statutory authority for DWLS 1 and identified the factual basis for that offense in the probable cause statement provided on the back of the ticket, which also stated the offense as DWLS 1. Taylor relies solely on the front page reference to DWLS 3 to claim that he was actually charged with that offense. The court rules require more.

[State Criminal Rule for superior courts] 2.1(b) addresses the requirements for criminal citations. In addition to other . . . information, the citation must include the `numerical code section’ and a `description of the offense charged.’ . . . The officer must also certify there is probable cause to believe `the person committed the offense charged.’

In light of these requirements, the citation did not charge DWLS 3. We do not decide if [it] was sufficient to charge DWLS 1 in light of the erroneous description on the front.

However, we are quite confident that the citation was not sufficient to charge DWLS 3. In light of the citation's defects, it was error to accept the guilty plea to an uncharged offense. The combination of the error in the description and the clerk's error in entering DWLS 3 into the computer did not constitute a charge of DWLS 3.

City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The court also held that the superior court correctly found there was no factual basis for Taylor’s plea. City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. Basically, it found that the “basis for the license revocation is an element of the offense and must” therefore “be established.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra. It also found that “[h]ere, there was no factual basis at the time of the plea for believing that DWLS 3 had been committed” because “there was no proof” of the “relevant suspension circumstances.” City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the superior court’s order holding that the “plea to the uncharged offense was invalid” and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings. City of Spokane v. Taylor, supra.

You might be wondering why Taylor couldn’t argue that the 5th Amendment’s prohibition on double jeopardy would be violated if he were prosecuted for DWLS 1 after having been charged with DWLS 3. As this site notes, double jeopardy attaches in a jury trial when the jurors are sworn in and attaches in a bench trial when the first witness is sworn. Since none of that happened here, the protection against double jeopardy presumably didn’t attach, but that’s not the real problem Taylor would face in trying to raise this issue.

As the Washington Court of Appeals noted in State v. Tresenriter, 101 Wash. App. 486, 4 P.3d 145 (2000), “conviction of a crime not charged is a nullity and a defendant so convicted has never been in jeopardy.” So even if we assume Taylor was somehow “convicted” of DWLS 3, the fact that he was never actually charged with that crime means he was never in “jeopardy.”

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