City of Kalispell v. Omyer, 2016 MT 63 (March 15, 2016) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, aff’d)
Issue: (1) Whether § 61-5-212, MCA imposes absolute liability for driving with a suspended license; and (2) whether letters from the Motor Vehicle Department informing each appellant that their drivers’ licenses were suspended were improperly admitted testimonial hearsay or properly admitted copies of public records.
Short Answer: (1) Yes, and (2) the letters were properly admitted as copies of public records under Rules 803(8) and 902(4).
Facts: In this consolidated appeal, three defendants were charged with various traffic violations, including driving with a suspended license. In each of the three bench trials, the state introduced letters sent from the MVD to the defendant notifying him or her of the suspension. Each defendant objected to the letters as hearsay and on Sixth Amendment grounds, and in each case the letters were admitted. Defendants did not object to the admission of the MVD’s “certified driving record” for each defendant, which unequivocally established that the defendants’ licenses were suspended at the time they were stopped and cited.
Appellants argue that the state was required to prove that each defendant knew he or she was driving with a suspended license at the time of the offense, and that the letters were improperly admitted because they were “testimonial hearsay” subject to Confrontation Clause protections.
Procedural Posture & Holding: Each defendant was convicted in municipal court, and their convictions were affirmed by the district court. Defendants appeal and the Supreme Court affirms.
Reasoning: (1) § 61-5-212, MCA does not reference a mental state. The legislative purpose is not difficult to discern – to keep unsafe drivers off of the road. The Court concludes that the statute imposes absolute liability, and that conviction does not require a culpable mental state.
(2) The primary purpose of the suspension letters is to notify drivers of a license suspension and create a statutorily mandated database of driver’s license records. The Court concludes the letters are part of the MVD database, which is created for the administration of the MVD’s affairs and not for the purpose of proving a fact at trial. The letters are therefore not testimonial hearsay, and were properly admitted as public records under Rules 803(8) and 902(4).