Daily Archives: September 5, 2005
It has long been a basic tenet of law that the language of criminal statutes must be reasonably interpreted, and if there is any ambiguity in that language the statute must be interpreted in favor of the defendant. As the United States Supreme Court has clearly stated:
First, as we have recently reaffirmed, “ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity.”….This principle is founded on two policies that have long been part of our tradition. First, “a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear.”…Second, because of the seriousness of criminal penalties, and because criminal punishment usually represents the moral condemnation of the community, legislatures and not courts should define criminal activity. (cites) Thus, where there is ambiguity in a criminal statute, doubts are resolved in favor of the defendant. [Emphasis added.] U.S. v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336 (1971).
Except, apparently, in drunk driving cases. In yet another example of what I have repeatedly referred to as “the DUI exception to the Constitution”, police, prosecutors and judges continue stretching the language of drunk driving statutes to ludicrous extremes in their effort to encompass as many citizens in the DUI dragnet as possible.
Most states have statutes with language essentially similar to that of California:
It is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug…to drive a vehicle.
The meaning of “drive” would seem fairly clear to any reasonable person. Yet, I have reported cases where citizens have been convicted of pushing the vehicle after running out of gas, of sitting in a parked car with the engine off, and even of sleeping in a parked vehicle. In each case, judges have broadly interpeted the language of the DUI statute in favor of the prosecution.
Somehow, the words of Lewis Carroll keep coming to mind:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”