Court overturns conviction that was based on letter from the Registry of Motor Vehicles
The Supreme Judicial Court today threw out a Palmer man's 60-day jail sentence for driving after his license had been revoked because his lawyer was not allowed to examine anybody from the Registry about a letter it supposedly sent him about the revocation.
Peter Parenteau pleaded guilty to drunk driving in 2007 in exchange for a sentence that included a two-year license revocation. He says he never received notice from the Registry that it had decided on its own to suspend his license for ten years - and that the Registry had actually issued him a new license after the two-year period ran out.
Prosecutors produced a letter from a Registry official that the agency had mailed a notice about the extended punishment to Parenteau's last known address - his parents' home. The trial judge refused to either let his lawyer call somebody from the Registry to testify or to toss the evidence because there was no proof either his parents or he had actually gotten the letter.
Parenteau was arrested when he stopped at a Boxborough gas station to ask directions and a cop ran his plate because he had parked in a gas-station fire lane.
In its ruling today, the state's highest court sided with Parenteau, ruling that when paperwork is key to a conviction - as it was in this case - the defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to question whoever signed the document. The court cited a US Supreme Court decision that threw out a Massachusetts drug conviction based on a certificate from a lab technician about the nature of the substance police found.
We conclude that the registry certificate, like a certificate of drug analysis, is testimonial in nature. It is a solemn declaration made by the registrar for the purpose of establishing the fact that a notice of license revocation was mailed to the defendant on May 2, 2007, and, by inference, was received by him. The registry certificate was dated July 24, 2009, nearly two months after the criminal complaint for operating a motor vehicle after license revocation had issued against the defendant. As such, it plainly was made for use at the defendant's trial as prima facie evidence that he was notified of his license revocation, an essential element of the charged crime that the Commonwealth was required to prove. The certificate did not simply attest to the existence and authenticity of records kept by the registry but made a factual representation based on those records that a particular action had been performed--notice had been mailed on a specified date. ... The mere existence of a copy of the notice of license revocation in the registrar's files did not, in and of itself, constitute proof that it was mailed to the defendant. Because the certificate is a testimonial statement, its admission at trial in the absence of testimony from a registry witness violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.