Inferring Knowledge From Presumed Knowledge

By Chris Mincher

“Knowledge” might seem to be a pretty basic concept: A person either knows something or doesn’t know something. But, of course, there are precious few truly basic concepts in the law, and even a question as to what a person knows can get tricky once all the presumptions and inferences start getting worked into it. One of these — the so-called “deliberate indifference” doctrine — split the judges in the recent Appellate Court case of Woodall v. State, but the case also shed light on a premise I hadn’t previously been aware of: that presumed knowledge of the law can also support a finding that a defendant was willfully ignorant about its consequences.

Woodall doesn’t involve a serious crime — the defendant was convicted of driving after his license had been revoked five months earlier for a DUI. (I assume the conviction for driving on a revoked license is pursuant to § 16-303 of the Transportation Article, though the opinion doesn’t precisely state it). That has been held to contain a requirement that the defendant knew his license had been revoked. In this case, Mr. Woodall contended that he never received the revocation decision from the Motor Vehicles Administration. There’s a little more background to it, though.

Mr. Woodall had received notice that his license had been revoked, but he requested a hearing to challenge it. He thereafter received another notice that the revocation was being held “in abeyance” until the hearing. From there, it is unclear whether he was ever sent a notice of the actual hearing — he says he never got one — but in any case he never showed up. After he didn’t appear, the agency revoked his license pursuant to TR § 12-208. That decision is supposed to be personally delivered or mailed, but he said he never got that either.

The whole process was consistent with what happened to Mr. Woodall only two years before. That time, after he got notice his license was suspended, he asked for a hearing, the revocation was held in abeyance until then, and he attended a hearing within 60 days. So he should have been generally aware of how it was all supposed to work.

The question for the courts was whether the second time, after he got the hearing notice but never attended it, Mr. Woodall “knew” his license was revoked. This is where the principle of “deliberate indifference” comes into play. That’s a form of knowledge (it counts just like knowledge) that applies when someone purposely avoids learning information the person believes is probably true.

In a concurrence in McCallum v. State, 321 Md. 451, 461 (1991), Judge Chasanow used “deliberate ignorance” to establish knowledge of driving on a suspended license — a strategy since adopted by the intermediate appellate court in multiple cases nearly analogous to Mr. Woodall’s, including Steward v. State, 218 Md. App. 550 (2014), and Rice v. State, 136 Md. App. 593 (2001). Accordingly, here the circuit court found Mr. Woodall “willfully decided” not to learn the status of his license and was therefore guilty. On appeal, a majority of the panel agreed.

The Appellate Court held that a finding of deliberate indifference could result from the notices Mr. Woodall received in light of his experience from only two years prior. Once he got the original notice of revocation, the judges surmised, he certainly knew his license was in jeopardy. He also knew that a hearing was imminent, because in the earlier incident he had one within two months of his request. It was reasonable to infer from those facts that, as the months went by, he should have called the MVA to find out what was going on — and if he didn’t it was because he was afraid his license was revoked.

Judge Kenney dissented. He focused on the facts that the last notification to Mr. Woodall said the revocation was being held in abeyance, and that in the former incident Mr. Woodall attended the hearing — so it was reasonable to infer that he planned to do so again. But even if that’s all true, isn’t an MVA letter threatening to revoke a driver’s license a thing worth staying on top of?

Judge Kenney’s dissent suggests that if Mr. Woodall never received follow-up correspondence to his hearing request, he could just shrug his shoulders, get back behind the wheel, and go on driving in perpetuity (which certainly isn’t a good result for society given how terrible of a driver Mr. Woodall seems to be). I’m with the majority that at some point it’s reasonable to assume that a person who never checks back in with the agency would rather not find out what happened. But, all that aside, the dispute between the judges about the sufficiency of the evidence really isn’t a particularly fascinating aspect of this case.

What caught my eye was a different justification in the ruling. First, as we all remember from 1L year, a person is presumed to know the law. According to the majority, because of that, “a factfinder could reasonably infer” that Mr. Woodall knew “(1) the hearing had to be scheduled within 30 days of his request; (2) if he did not appear at the hearing, the Administrator could impose the sanction proposed in the notice of revocation; and (3) the Administrator was required to render its decision within 30 days after the hearing.” And that presumed knowledge could support a finding of deliberate ignorance about whether his license was in fact revoked.

This wasn’t a novel approach — the majority cited both Steward and Rice, the latter of which seems to be the more useful precedent. (The Steward opinion quoted Rice but didn’t reference the premise at all later on in the dispositive discussion). In Rice, the defendant didn’t know his license was going to be suspended (after similarly being convicted of driving under the influence), but the Court of Special Appeals said that was “immaterial” because “a driver is presumed to know the law regardless of conscious knowledge or lack thereof, and is presumed to intend the necessary and legitimate consequences of his or her actions in its light.” (The same analysis shows up again in the 2019 unreported opinion of Murray v. State).

Well, that’s interesting. To be clear, the presumption about knowing the law did not, by itself, resolve either the Woodall or Rice cases. I expect that’s because whether a license could be legally revoked or suspended is a matter of law, but whether or not a license has actually been revoked or suspended is a separate fact. Being presumed to know that the agency may revoke or suspend a license is not the same as knowing the fact as to whether the agency actually did so.

What these opinions suggest is that a person could not know a law, yet — because of the presumption that they do — be found to have intentionally avoided learning of that law’s consequences. On the surface, that seems a little odd: How could a person have acted willfully or intentionally in regards to something they are only presumed to, but not actually, know? I think it’s at least safe to say Judge Kenney would take issue with that.

As far as I can tell, this sort of combination of the presumption to know the law and deliberate indifference to its consequences only appears in the context of driving on a suspended or revoked license. (Anyone feel free to educate me further, of course!) My guess is that saying people are presumed to know the law looks good on paper, but isn’t really doing much work here; the courts in these cases are comfortable that the defendants know their licenses are at risk, because everybody knows that a driver’s license would be at risk in these circumstances. Anyone who obtains and maintains a driver’s license is aware that being convicted of driving under the influence — and certainly actually receiving a notice of revocation — could lead to a license being suspended or revoked. As such, it’s not really a matter of presuming that people know the law, because the court is pretty confident these people actually know the law.

The problem is proving it. If someone says they don’t know something — no matter how much it seems they should know it — it’s not easy to put on evidence to refute that. Yet it still feels analytically troublesome to demand that people actively take steps to learn the consequences of laws they aren’t actually aware of. The easier route might be to ditch the “knowledge” requirement entirely for these kinds of license violations and treat them as strict liability, as the courts already seem inclined to do.

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