Jun 15 2011

Massachusetts Conviction Overturned Because Right To Confront Document Preparer Violated

Peter L. Parenteau’s conviction in 2009 for driving with a revoked driver’s license was set-aside by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court on June 10, 2011. The SJC ruled Parenteau had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine the person who prepared the document the prosecution relied on to prove he had been informed his license was revoked.

Parenteau pled guilty in April 2007 to driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor in Massachusetts. In sentencing Parenteau the judge told him his driver’s license would be revoked for two years.

Gulf gas station in Boxborough, MA where Peter L. Parenteau was arrested (Google streetview)

Gulf gas station in Boxborough, MA where Peter L. Parenteau was arrested (Google streetview)

More than two years later, in May 2009 Parenteau was parked at a Gulf service station in Boxborough when a police offer ran his license plate. The officer learned that Parenteau was the registered owner of the vehicle and that he had a revoked driver’s license. The officer confronted Parenteau, and even though he produced a valid driver’s license the officer arrested him for driving with a revoked license.

Prior to Parenteau’s trial the prosecution provided his lawyer with a certification from the Registry of Motor Vehicles dated July 24, 2009, that showed he had been mailed a notice on May 2, 2007 that his driver’s license had been revoked for ten years. Parenteau’s lawyer filed a motion in limine to exclude the certification on the ground that it violated his right to confront the witness against him — namely whoever allegedly prepared and mailed the notice in May 2007. The judge denied the motion and Parenteau was subsequently convicted.

Parenteau appealed and on June 10, 2011 Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court overturned Parenteau’s conviction, ruling that a certificate issued by the Registry of Motor Vehicles cannot be used as evidence that a person has been notified their driver’s license has been revoked. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts,, 129 S.Ct. 2527 (2009), in which the Court ruled that the expert conducting a drug-test is required to testify — and must be available for cross-examination — about their findings in court, the SJC ruled that introduction of the certificate violated Parenteau’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witness testifying against him, which would be the person who allegedly mailed the certificate. The SJC stated in Commonwealth vs. Peter L. Parenteau, SJC-10763 (6-10-2011):

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.

Since there is no evidence Parenteau was notified his license was revoked for ten years instead of the two years the judge told him during his sentencing hearing, his conviction for driving with a revoked driver’s license was set-aside by the SJC.

The principles set forth in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, and in the USSC’s earlier decision in
Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 59 (2004) about a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine witnesses are applicable to many wrongful conviction cases.

By Hans Sherrer
Justice Denied

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