Seattle v. Winebrenner/Seattle v. Quezada: Court finds Lenity for Defendants In the Face of Statutory Ambiguity

Great decision handed down by WA Supremes.  A “prior offense” applies only to offenses that occurred before the current offense, and does not encompass all offenses the defendant has before sentencing.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=812799MAJ

Both Scott Winebrenner and Jesus Quezada were arrested multiple times for driving under the influence (DUI). Each had a deferred prosecution agreement from one arrest which they violated with a subsequent arrest. For those who don’t know, a deferred prosecution is a contract entered into with the court.  Typically, a defendant obtains an alcohol evaluation which states they suffer from an alcohol problem; agrees to be on probation for five years; enters a grueling treatment regimen, and commits no new law violations.  If successful, the DUI gets dismissed.  If they fail, however, the court may revoke the entire agreement, find the defendant guilty, and issue a jail sentence.

Deferred sentences represent a “grey area” in criminal jurisprudence.  They are neither a conviction or a dismissal.  The issue was ripe to determine whether a deferred sentence counts as a prior conviction if the defendant violates the terms by garnering new charges.

Here, the Court reasoned that RCW 46.61.5055’s  use of “prior offense” is ambiguous because it is “subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.” The “rule of lenity” requires “that an ambiguous criminal statute cannot be interpreted to increase the penalty imposed.” The Court further reasoned that offenses committed after the original offense are not “prior offenses” and cannot be considered at sentencing for the original offense.

My opinion? I’m impressed the WA Supremes supported the Rule of Lenity.   The spirit of the rule of lenity – fundamental fairness – lies at the heart of a respectable criminal justice system. See McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 27 (1931) (the principle of “fair warning” motivates the lenity rule) (Holmes, J.). At a high level of generality, we all agree that ambiguous criminal statutes must be construed in favor of the accused.  But the rule of lenity is often not taken seriously.  Glad to see the WA Supremes gave teeth back to the rule.