Category Archives: “Plain Meaning” Rule

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.


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.”


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.