At-a-Glance Contributor Katharine J. Phinney Practices family law at Russman Law Office in Concord, New Hampshire

Criminal Law

No. 2017-0692
December 7, 2018

  • Whether the defendant’s act of driving a vehicle lawfully registered to another person while his registration was suspended constituted a violation of RSA 261:178.

On January 25, 2017, the NH Department of Safety suspended the defendant’s operating privileges. On January 31, DOS suspended his registration for lack of insurance but then restored his operating privileges due to the fact that the defendant obtained an operator insurance policy — however, his registration remained suspended. On August 31, the defendant was operating his son’s properly registered vehicle when he was pulled over by a Salem police officer for lack of vehicle inspection. The police officer learned that the defendant’s own personal registration was suspended and issued a summons to the defendant charging him with operating a vehicle while his registration privileges were suspended in violation of RSA 261:178.

At trial, the parties did not dispute the fact that the defendant’s operating privileges were in good standing on the date of the motor vehicle stop; that his own registration was suspended; and, that he was driving his son’s vehicle that was properly registered. The only dispute was whether the defendant’s act of driving a vehicle lawfully registered to another person while his registration was suspended constituted a violation of RSA 261:178.

The focus of the dispute was on the last clause of RSA 261:178 which states: “any person who shall drive or permit to be driven a vehicle owned or controlled by him upon any way after his registration has been suspended or revoked shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” The State interpreted the statute to prohibit any person with a suspended registration from driving any vehicle, regardless of whether the vehicle was registered to another person. The State argued that the word ‘controlled’ — as it appears in the statute — is synonymous with ‘driven.’ The defendant argued that the word ‘controlled’ does not mean ‘driven;’ rather it addresses circumstances where a person treats a vehicle as his own but does not legally own it. As such, the State failed to prove that the defendant owned or controlled the vehicle he was driving when he was stopped.

The defendant was ultimately convicted based on a finding that he “drove a vehicle controlled by him, on a way, after his registration was suspended.” The trial court determined that the defendant’s suspension was tied to him personally instead of a specific vehicle and concluded that the defendant was prohibited from driving any vehicle until he resolved his own personal registration issue.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed this decision by the trial court and found that the court erred in interpreting RSA 261:178 and the suspension of the defendant’s registration as barring the defendant’s operating privileges. Instead of focusing on the last clause of the statute, as the trial court did, the Court reviewed the statute in its entirety and concluded that the State’s argument would ultimately prohibit an individual from driving a properly registered and insured vehicle, regardless of whether the vehicle was owned by that person. The Court provided examples to illustrate this conclusion. One such example was that of a person with a suspended registration who drove a vehicle owned and properly registered and insured by that person’s employer. The Court concluded this simply was not logical or just.

Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Stephen D. Fuller, senior assistant attorney general on the memorandum of law and Elizabeth C. Woodcock, assistant attorney general, orally), for the state. Randall Baldwin Clark, of Hollis, for the defendant.