New York VTL 511 Arrests: Understanding the Knowledge Element in Third Degree Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle

Driving with a suspended license in New York may seem like no big deal, but Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle (Vehicle and Traffic Law 511, a/k/a VTL 511), is not only serious, but a criminal offense. Although not a part of the New York Penal Law, VTL 511 is an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by up to thirty days in jail. As such, should you be arrested for Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle in the Third Degree and ultimately convicted of VTL 511 in New York, you will have a permanent record. It makes no difference whether the issuing state for your license is New York or elsewhere.

Whether a police officer arrests you for VTL 511 and gives you a New York City Desk Appearance Ticket or processes you through court that same day, the law is the same. In a nutshell, if you operate a motor vehicle in New York while your license or privilege to do so in this state is suspended or revoked (and you know or have reason to know), you are guilty of Third Degree Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle. Although the law is fairly clear, how can you “beat” a VTL 511 case if in fact your license to drive in New York is suspended? While I wish there was a catch all answer, the following case demonstrates the significance not merely of the actual suspension or revocation, but the critical element of knowledge in an unlicensed driving allegation. Simply asked, if the People (prosecution) can prove your license was revoked or suspended, do they still need to establish your knowledge of the same? The answer to this question is found the recent decision of People v. Krystal Francis, 10257/2010, NYLJ 1202558131182, at *1 (Sup., KI, Decided May 29, 2012).

On September 11, 2010, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Krystal Francis was involved in a motor vehicle accident that left a bicyclist fatally injured. During a police investigation, it was discovered that Ms. Francis’ license to operate a motor vehicle had been suspended and she was subsequently placed under arrest for driving with a suspended license. After a jury trial, Ms. Francis was convicted of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle in the Third Degree (Vehicle and Traffic Law 511 [1][a]).

Upon receiving her verdict, Ms. Francis moved for an order to set aside that verdict, under CPL 330.30, on the grounds that the evidence adduced at trial was legally insufficient to establish that she received notice of her driver’s license suspension, an element of the crime as noted above.

During the trial, Marvina Queenie, a supervisor in a Brooklyn office of the Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV), testified that she visited a DMV in Albany approximately eight to ten years ago to “see how certain things function up in Albany.” However, Ms. Queenie’s testimony was completely devoid of any specific references to the types of observations she made in Albany, whether she was trained in the mailing procedures utilized by the Albany DMV, or whether such procedures were utilized at the time the notices of suspension were created and mailed in the current case.

Thus, in support of the motion, Ms. Francis argued that the evidence proffered by the prosecution at trial was legally insufficient to establish a requisite element of the crime, namely that Ms. Francis knew or had reason to know that her license or privilege to operate a motor vehicle in this state was suspended, revoked, or otherwise withdrawn by the commissioner of the department of motor vehicles. Specifically, Ms. Queenie did not have personal knowledge of the mailing procedures utilized by the Albany DMV at the time the notices of suspension were mailed to Ms. Francis.

A trial court may set aside a verdict of guilty based upon “[a]ny ground appearing in the record which, if raised upon an appeal from a prospective judgment of conviction, would require a reversal or modification of the judgment as a matter of law by an appellate court” (CPL 330.30 [1]). In determining such a motion, the Court is required to decide whether the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the prosecution, is legally sufficient to “establish every element of an offense charged and the defendant’s commission thereof” (CPL 70.10[1]; see People v. Contes, 60 NY2d 620; People v. Hutchinson, 57 AD3d 565, lv denied 12 NY3d 784; People v. Hannah, 267 AD2d 402).

Viewing the evidence adduced at trial in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the Court still found that there was no proof offered whatsoever concerning an essential element of the crime (see People v. Danielson, 9 NY3d 342; People v. Acosta, 80 NY2d 665). Accordingly, the court set aside the guilty verdict and dismissed the indictment against Ms. Francis (see People v. Biggs, 1 NY3d 225, 229 [“It is settled that dismissal of a count due to insufficient evidence is tantamount to an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy and protects a defendant against additional prosecution for such count.”]; see also Suarez v. Byrne, 10 NY3d 523, reargument denied 11 NY3d 753; Burks v. United States, 437 US 1). In sum, no proof of knowledge…no criminal case of VTL 511.

Remember, each case is unique even where the criminal elements are the same. To educate yourself on New York criminal statutes and New York Criminal Procedure, follow any of the highlighted links above or review the websites and blogs linked below.

Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors, the New York criminal lawyers at Saland Law PC represent clients in a wide variety of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law crimes ranging from Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Vehicle to Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) throughout the New York City region.

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