Category Archives: “Plain Meaning” Rule

Vehicle Prowl Prior Convictions

Image result for vehicle prowl

In State v. LaPointe, the WA Court of Appeals held that when a defendant pleads guilty on the same day in a single proceeding to multiple counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling, the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree is not elevated to a felony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On December 9, 2013, Clifford Paul LaPointe Jr. pleaded guilty as charged by amended information to two counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree in July 2013 and in September 2013. LaPointe also pleaded guilty as charged by amended information to vehicle prowling in the second degree in May 2013 under a different cause number. On January 3, 2014, the court sentenced LaPointe on the convictions. The court imposed a concurrent 364-day suspended sentence.

On January 6, 2016, the State charged LaPointe with felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. The information alleged LaPointe had “previously been convicted on at least two separate occasions of the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree, each occurring on a separate date and not having been charged in the same charging document.”

LaPointe filed a Knapstad motion to dismiss the charge of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. He argued that under the plain and unambiguous language of RCW 9A.52.100(3), he had not been previously convicted on “two separate occasions.” LaPointe argued the record established he pleaded guilty in 2013 by amended information to the misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree charges on the same day and in the same proceeding.

However, the State counter-argued the court should deny the motion to dismiss under RCW 9A.52.100(4). The State reasoned that because LaPointe pleaded guilty as charged in two amended informations to offenses that occurred on different dates, his 2013 convictions elevated the current offense to a felony.

The trial court denied LaPointe’s Knapstad motion. It reasoned that LaPointe was previously convicted on at least two separate occasions because he pleaded guilty in 2013 to misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree based on separate dates of occurrence as charged in separate charging documents.

LaPointe agreed to a trial on stipulated facts (bench trial). The court convicted LaPointe of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. The court ruled the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that LaPointe had been previously convicted on two separate occasions of the crime of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree.

On appeal, LaPointe contends the court erred in denying his Knapstad motion to dismiss the felony charge of vehicle prowling in the second degree.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

On review, the Court of Appeals gave some necessary background. It explained that in 2013, the Washington State Senate proposed an amendment to RCW 9A.52.100 to elevate the crime of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree to a felony upon a third or subsequent conviction. Afterward, the Washington State House of Representatives amended Senate Bill 5053 to define when a third or subsequent conviction elevates vehicle prowling in the second degree to a felony.

Next, the Court turned to LaPointe’s arguments regarding statutory interpretation. “LaPointe argues that under the plain and unambiguous language of RCW 9A.52.100(3), the court erred in denying his Knapstad motion to dismiss the felony charge because he had not been previously convicted on two separate occasions,” said the Court. “The State asserts that under RCW 9A.52.100(4), LaPointe was previously convicted on two separate occasions because he was not charged in the same information and the crimes occurred on different dates.”

The Court of Appeals reasoned that when interpreting a statute, the fundamental goal is to ascertain and carry out the intent of the legislature:

“We seek to determine legislative intent solely from the plain language of the statute. The plain meaning of a statutory provision is to be discerned from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue.”

The court further explained that it derives legislative intent from the plain language of the statute by considering the text of the provision in question, the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.

“We do not analyze individual subsections in isolation from the other sections of the statute when doing so would undermine the overall statutory purpose,” said the Court. “We must also interpret and construe a statute to harmonize and give effect to the language used in the statute with no portion rendered meaningless or superfluous and assume the legislature means exactly what it says.”

It reasoned that in this case, the defendant was convicted of two counts of vehicle prowling in the second degree under King County Cause No. 13-1-13980-1, and one count of vehicle prowling in the second degree under King County Cause No. 13-1-12822-1. These convictions are each based on separate dates of occurrence. The convictions under 13-1-13980-1 were charged in a charging document that is separate from the charging document in 13-1-12822-1. The two cause numbers were sentenced on the same date to give the defendant the benefit of presumptively concurrent sentences.

“The State’s argument that by identifying two situations that do not count as convictions for purposes of charging a felony in RCW 9A.52.100(4), the legislature has defined “separate occasions” that elevate the crime to a felony, is the inverse of what the language actually says,” said the Court. “RCW 9A.52.100(4) states that multiple counts of vehicle prowling either charged in the same information or ‘based on the same date of occurrence’ do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony:

“Multiple counts of vehicle prowling (a) charged in the same charging document do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony based on previous convictions for vehicle prowling in the second degree and (b) based on the same date of occurrence do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony based on previous convictions for vehicle prowling in the second degree.”

“The State’s argument also relies on a logical fallacy,” said the Court. “The proposition that ‘A implies B’ is not the equivalent of ‘non-A implies non-B,’ and neither proposition follows logically from the other.”  In other words, said the Court, identifying two situations that do not count as separate offenses does not mean the inverse—that pleading guilty on the same day in the same proceeding to multiple charges that occurred on different days in two different cause numbers elevates the crime to a felony.

The Court reasoned that because neither a plain reading of the statutory scheme as a whole nor legislative history clearly resolves the ambiguity, under the rule of lenity, it interpreted the statute to mean that when a defendant pleads guilty on the same day in a single proceeding to multiple counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling as charged by amended information in two different cause numbers, the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree is not elevated to a felony.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s denial of LaPointe’s Knapstad motion to dismiss and also reversed his conviction of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree.

Possessing Controlled Substances for Family Members.

Image result for giving pills to family

In State v. Yokel, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided that it’s a valid defense for defendants to possess a controlled substance pursuant to a household member’s valid prescription.

On February 15, 2015, a police officer discovered defendant Mary Yokel’s car parked in front of a motel room. Yokel had an active arrest warrant. Officer Croy knocked on the motel room door and made contact with Yokel. He then arrested Yokel on the warrant and searched her person incident to arrest. During the search, Officer Croy located one pill in Yokel’s pants pocket and verified it was Vicodin, containing hydrocodone. Yokel said she was holding the Vicodin pill for her daughter, who has a valid prescription. The State charged Yokel with two counts of possession of a controlled substance.

At trial, Yokel wanted to introduce evidence that she possessed the Vicodin pursuant to her 16-year-old daughter’s valid prescription. Yokel’s defense was that on the day in question, she had taken two of the pills out of the Vicodin bottle, gave one to her daughter, and put the other one in her pocket after determining that her daughter should not take two pills.

However, the trial judge denied Yokel’s motion to continue the case to allow her daughter to testify. Also, the court granted the Prosecutor’s motion in limine to exclude any evidence regarding Yokel’s daughter’s valid Vicodin prescription.

As a result, at trial, Yokel was not allowed to testify that she possessed the controlled substance for the purpose of administering it to her daughter. The jury found Yokel guilty of one count of possession of a controlled substance (hydrocodone). Yokel appealed.

  1. RCW 69.50.4013(1) PROVIDES THE DEFENSE THAT DEFENDANTS MAY HOLD PRESCRIPTION PILLS FOR FAMILY MEMBERS.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with Yokel that RCW 69.50.4013(1) permits a defendant to possess a household member’s valid prescription for a controlled substance. It reasoned the statute provides an affirmative defense to a person who lawfully possesses a controlled substance obtained “directly from” or “pursuant to” a valid prescription. By including these different phrases in the statute, the legislature indicated its intent that each phrase have a different meaning.

Additionally, former RCW 69.50.308 (2013), one of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act’s statutes, allows practitioners to dispense controlled substances to an “ultimate user” pursuant to a prescription. The Act defines an “ultimate user” as an individual who lawfully possesses a controlled substance for the individual’s own use.

Consequently, reasoned the Court, this definition of “ultimate user” indicates the legislature’s intent to allow an ultimate user to possess a controlled substance for the use of another household member:

“Interpreting former RCW 69.50.4013(1) as prohibiting ultimate users from lawfully possessing a controlled substance prescribed to another household member leads to an absurd result. Reading the statute in such a way criminalizes behavior that may involve a common caretaking function. For example, a son who picks up his bedridden father’s prescription medication or a mother who administers a prescription medication to her infant daughter would be in violation of the statute.”

2. THE RIGHT TO PRESENT A DEFENSE.

The Court of Appeals said the trial court violated Yokel’s constitutional right to present a defense when it suppressed her from testifying why she held the pill for her daughter. The Court reasoned that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant the right to present a defense to the crimes charged.

Here, a defendant has the right to present admissible evidence in her defense and must show the evidence is at least minimally relevant to the fact at issue in her case.  Further, a defendant is entitled to a jury instruction supporting her theory of the case if there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it. “The trial court effectively barred Yokel from presenting a defense because it excluded all evidence regarding her daughter’s prescription and declined to give her proposed affirmative defense instruction,” reasoned the Court. “In light of our ruling above, the instruction and all evidence in support thereof should have been allowed at trial.”

The Court of Appeals concluded the trial court misinterpreted former RCW 69.50.4013(1) and, as a result, denied Yokel the right to present a defense. Therefore, it reversed Yokel’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Excellent decision. The court rightfully went to arguments of statutory construction and interpreted the plain meaning of the statute to reach its decision. Well done.

Lawnmowers Aren’t Vehicles.

Image result for steal riding lawnmower

In State v. Barnes, the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that a riding lawnmower is not a “motor vehicle” for the the crime of Theft of a Motor Vehicle, RCW 9A.56.065.

On June 22, 2015, defendant Joshua Barnes and a female companion, Danielle Goodman, drove a white pickup to Judy Fraker’s property near Leavenworth. Fraker was home. Barnes exited the pickup, mounted Fraker’s riding lawnmower, and started the mower’s motor. The mower was a Craftsman, gas-powered, self-propelled riding lawnmower, with a twenty-six horse power engine. Barnes drove the lawnmower up a ramp and into the bed of his pickup.

Fraker exited her home, confronted Barnes, ordered him to remove her lawnmower from his pickup and leave her premises. Barnes obeyed. Two days later, Barnes admitted to law enforcement that he attempted to steal the riding lawnmower.

The State of Washington charged Barnes with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, Driving With License Suspended in the Third Degree, and Criminal Trespass in the Second Degree. Barnes argued a Knapstad Motion to dismiss the allegation of Theft of a Motor Vehicle under arguments that the evidence was insufficient because a lawnmower is not a “motor vehicle.” The trial court agreed and dismissed the charge of theft of a motor vehicle without prejudice. The State pursued appealed.

The Court began by saying that Washington follows the “Plain Meaning” rule. In other words, to determine legislative intent, this court looks first to the language of the statute. If the statute’s meaning is plain on its face, the court will give effect to that plain meaning as the expression of what was intended. Here, the Court reasoned that a riding lawnmower meets the elements· of ‘motor vehicle’ if we read RCW 46.04.320 and .670 literally.

Nevertheless – and in a surprising twist – the Court questioned whether we should always follow the Plain Meaning principle. First, “The legislature sometimes uses inept language in expressing its intent,” reasoned the Court. Second, courts should interpret statutes to affect their purpose. “Therefore, any unlikely, absurd, or strained consequences resulting from a plain and literal reading of the statute should be avoided and a literal reading of RCW 46.04.320 and its definition of “motor vehicle” would lead to unintended and silly results,” reasoned the Court:

“As argued by Joshua Barnes, a literal reading ofRCW 46.04.320 and its definition of ‘motor vehicle’ would lead to unintended and silly results. An iRobot Roomba, a self-propelled vacuum, would be a motor vehicle, since one could transport small property on the Roomba. A jokester could place her cat on top of the vacuum and send the iRobot Roomba down her neighborhood street. Theft of a child’s remote control car that includes a doll in the driver’s seat would also qualify for theft of a motor vehicle if we literally read RCW 46.04.320 and .670. Therefore, the purposes behind RCW 9A.56.065 should assist in limiting a literal meaning of the ‘motor vehicle’ definition.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court’s dismissal of charges against Joshua Barnes for theft of a motor vehicle. “A riding lawnmower is not a motor vehicle for purposes of theft.”

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve argued many pretrial motions where my opponent’s statutory interpretations lead to absurd results. Sometimes, we must point out the obvious.