Argued: November 10, 2015
Patrick M. Carron, of Concord, by brief and orally, for the petitioner.
Joseph A. Foster, attorney general (Matthew T. Broadhead, attorney, by memorandum of law and orally), for the respondent.
The petitioner, Jonathan Wolfgram, appeals an order of the Superior Court (McNamara, J.) affirming a decision by the respondent, the New Hampshire Department of Safety (DOS), to retain notations on the petitioner's motor vehicle record referring to his certification and decertification as a habitual offender, despite the fact that the convictions that led to his habitual offender certification had been annulled. The petitioner argues that, because the habitual offender notations reveal the fact of his annulled criminal convictions, allowing DOS to retain the notations on his motor vehicle record defeats the purpose of the annulment statute, RSA 651:5 (Supp. 2015). We reverse and remand.
The parties stipulated to the following facts in the trial court. Between 2002 and 2007, the petitioner was convicted of multiple motor vehicle offenses. Based upon these convictions, DOS certified the petitioner as a habitual offender and revoked his license and operating privileges for four years. See RSA 259:39 (2014) (defining habitual offender as any person "whose record, as maintained in the office of the division, shows that such person has accumulated convictions" specified by the statute "within a 5-year period"). In 2011, the petitioner requested to be decertified as a habitual offender. DOS granted his request, reissued the petitioner's driver's license, and placed him on "probationary status" until November 2016.
Between 2012 and 2013, the petitioner obtained "approximately seventeen" annulments of various motor vehicle convictions, including those that had resulted in his habitual offender certification. DOS removed these annulled convictions from the petitioner's motor vehicle record. In 2014, the petitioner requested a hearing at DOS, seeking to have "all notations regarding [his] past Habitual Offender Certification and Decertification" removed from his motor vehicle record. He argued that, given that the convictions underlying his habitual offender status had been annulled, "[l]eaving the notations regarding [his] habitual offender status [on his record] defeat[ed] [the] purpose of the annulment statute." Following a hearing, DOS denied the petitioner's request, explaining:
While each court has acted formally to invalidate each of its subject convictions, the State Department of Safety has never formally acted to invalidate its [habitual offender] certification action. As a result, as that action and its related actions were valid at the time and have not been annulled, notations of those actions are not in error, and they must remain on the [petitioner's] record.
The petitioner's request for reconsideration was denied, and he appealed to the superior court.
The trial court affirmed the decision by DOS to retain the habitual offender notations on the petitioner's motor vehicle record, concluding that it was "consistent with the plain language" of RSA 651:5, which provides, in part, that annulled convictions "may be counted toward habitual offender status, " RSA 651:5, X(a). The trial court also observed that keeping the notations on the petitioner's motor vehicle record was "consistent with the entire statutory scheme relating to Habitual Offenders, " which empowers DOS to protect the public from dangerous drivers by denying habitual offenders the privilege of driving on public roads. See RSA 262:18-:26 (2014) (habitual offender policy and procedure). Finally, the trial court noted, because the habitual offender law provides that the order finding that a person is a habitual offender "shall become part of the record of the division of motor vehicles, " RSA 262:19, III, the habitual offender notations properly continued to be part of the petitioner's motor vehicle record. The petitioner's motion for reconsideration was denied, and this appeal followed.
On appeal, the petitioner argues that, because the habitual offender notations reveal the fact of criminal convictions that have been annulled, the trial court erred by allowing DOS to retain the notations on his motor vehicle record. He asserts that the habitual offender notations must be removed in order to be consistent with the plain language and the purpose of the annulment statute. Although the petitioner acknowledges that DOS "has legitimate business and record keeping purposes" for maintaining a record of his annulled convictions and his prior certification as a habitual offender, he argues that this should not be done on his "official" motor vehicle record, which is "used by many landlords [and] employers" and "may be used in court proceedings and introduced as evidence in court matters." The petitioner also raises a constitutional challenge to the trial court's order. DOS counters that, because "the habitual offender designation is not a record of a criminal proceeding that is subject to annulment, " DOS is not required to remove the notations from the petitioner's record. DOS further asserts that the plain language of the annulment statute "expressly exempt[s] habitual offenders of the motor vehicle laws from receiving [the] privilege[s]" provided to persons with annulled convictions. Finally, DOS argues that removing the notations from the petitioner's official motor vehicle record would prevent DOS from upholding its statutory obligation to keep a record of habitual offender certifications. See RSA 262:19.
The issue on appeal presents a question of statutory interpretation. We review matters of statutory interpretation de novo. JMJ Properties, LLC v. Town of Auburn, 168 N.H. 127, 130 (2015). "We are the final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole." Choquette v. Roy, 167 N.H. 507, 517 (2015) (quotation omitted). "Our goal is to apply statutes in light of the legislature's intent in enacting them, and in light of the policy sought to be advanced by the entire statutory scheme." Id. (quotation omitted). "When construing the meaning of a statute, we first examine the language found in the statute, and where possible, we ascribe the plain and ordinary meanings to words used." Id. (quotation omitted). We will not construe a statute in a way that would render it "a virtual nullity." Appeal of Wilson, 161 N.H. 659, 664 (2011). "We construe statutes so as to effectuate their evident purpose and to avoid an interpretation that would lead to an absurd or unjust result." State v. Bulcroft, 166 N.H. 612, 614 (2014). "We construe provisions of the Criminal Code according to the fair import of their terms and to promote justice." Id.
The purpose of the annulment statute is to reduce the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and "to afford an offender . . . a chance to start anew without this stigma in his records." State v. Roe, 118 N.H. 690, 692-93 (1978) (quotation omitted). The "record of arrest, conviction and sentence of any person" that fits within the specific categories set forth in the statute "may be annulled by the sentencing court at any time in response to a petition for annulment . . . if in the opinion of the court, the annulment will assist in the petitioner's rehabilitation and will be consistent with the public welfare." RSA 651:5, I. Pursuant to RSA 651:5, X(a), "[t]he person whose record is annulled shall be treated in all respects as if he or she had never been arrested, convicted or sentenced." We have previously recognized that "[t]he language 'in all respects' cannot be read out of the statute or interpreted to encompass any less than the word 'all' requires." Brown v. Brown, 133 N.H. 442, 445 (1990). However, RSA 651:5, X(a) provides two narrow exceptions to this "otherwise unequivocal ...