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State v. Keenan

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

December 7, 2018

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
JEFFREY R. KEENAN

          Argued: October 18, 2018

          10th Circuit Court-Salem District Division

          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, on the brief and orally, for the defendant.

          DONOVAN, J.

         The defendant, Jeffrey R. Keenan, appeals his conviction in the Circuit Court (Stephen, J.) for driving a motor vehicle while his vehicle registration privileges were suspended, in violation of RSA 261:178 (2014). Because the defendant's conviction was based upon his lawful operation of a vehicle owned and registered to his son, we reverse.

         The following facts have been gleaned from the record and are not disputed. On January 25, 2017, the New Hampshire Department of Safety (DOS) suspended the defendant's operating privileges.[1] On January 31, DOS suspended the defendant's registration due to a lack of insurance. Between these two dates, the defendant purchased an operator insurance policy and presented evidence of this coverage by way of an "SR-22" certificate to DOS.[2]As a result, DOS restored the defendant's operating privileges. The notice DOS issued to the defendant explicitly stated that "All license/operating privileges are hereby restored. Your registration remains suspended." (Capitalization omitted.)

         On August 31, the defendant pulled out of his driveway and was promptly stopped by a Salem police officer who observed that the vehicle driven by the defendant was uninspected. During the stop, the officer ran a computer check on the defendant's license and learned that the defendant's registration was suspended. The officer also checked the registration number of the vehicle and learned that the vehicle was registered to Jake Keenan, who was subsequently identified as the defendant's son. Nonetheless, the officer 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 relevant facts - (1) the defendant's operating privileges were restored and in good standing on the date of the motor vehicle stop; (2) at that time, the defendant's registration remained suspended; and (3) the defendant was operating a vehicle, owned and properly registered in his son's name. Thus, the only dispute at trial 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.

         In their arguments at trial, the parties focused 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 argued that the statute prohibits any person with a suspended registration from driving any vehicle, regardless of whether the vehicle is registered to another person, in part, because the word "controlled" as it appears in the statute is synonymous with "driven." The defendant countered that "controlled" does not mean "driven" but instead refers to circumstances where a person treats a vehicle as his own but does not legally own it. Based on this meaning of "controlled," the defendant argued that the State failed to prove that he owned or controlled the vehicle he was driving when the officer stopped him.

         The trial court found that the defendant "drove a vehicle controlled by him, on a way, after his registration was suspended" and entered a finding of guilty. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court reviewed the defendant's registration suspension and determined that the suspension was tied to him personally rather than to a specific vehicle. Based on this determination, the trial court concluded that the "legislative intent" was to prohibit him from "driving any vehicle until he gets that straightened out." The defendant appeals his conviction arguing solely that the trial court rested its decision upon an erroneous interpretation of RSA 261:178.

         Resolving the purely legal issue now before us requires that we engage in statutory interpretation. The interpretation of a statute presents a question of law, which we review de novo. STIHL, Inc. v. State of N.H., 168 N.H. 332, 334 (2015). In matters of statutory interpretation, we are the final arbiters of the legislature's intent as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole. Id. When construing its meaning, we first examine the language found in the statute, and where possible, we ascribe the plain and ordinary meanings to the words used. Id. When statutory language is ambiguous, however, we will consider legislative history and examine the statute's overall objective and presume that the legislature would not pass an act that would lead to an absurd or illogical result. Id. at 334-35. We interpret statutory provisions in the context of the overall statutory scheme, id. at 335, and construe all parts of a statute together to effectuate its overall purpose and avoid absurd or unjust results. State v. Fogg, 170 N.H. 234, 236 (2017). We apply the same principles of construction when interpreting administrative rules. State v. Villeneuve, 160 N.H. 342, 347 (2010).

         On appeal, the defendant argues that the trial court erroneously treated "controlled" as a synonym for the term "drive," which constitutes an illogical interpretation of the statute. The State argues, as it did to the trial court, that the statute prohibits any person with a suspended registration from driving any vehicle. Although the parties and the trial court attempted to determine the meaning of RSA 261:178 by focusing their inquiry on the last clause of the statute, we construe all parts of the statute together to effectuate its overall purpose, even if the parties do not address it. See Fogg, 170 N.H. at 236. Accordingly, we consider all of the relevant language set forth in RSA 261:178, which states:

Suspension of Registration of Vehicle. The director, upon evidence satisfactory to him that the owner of a vehicle is permitting or has permitted the same to be driven in violation of any of the provisions of this title . . . may suspend the registration of such vehicle until [the director] is satisfied that the offense will not be repeated or the owner has been acquitted, and any person who shall drive or permit to be driven a vehicle owned or controlled by ...

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