Friday, March 09, 2012

People v. Manzo (Cal. Supreme Ct. - March 8, 2012)

Everybody laughed (and/or cringed) when President Clinton said:  "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is" is."  Because he had told the grand jury that there "is nothing going on" between him and Monica Lewinsky, and if "is" means presently, he was arguably correct.

But that legalese did not go over well with the public.  At all.

By contrast, here's a dispute in the California Supreme Court that's entirely about what the word "at" means.  And the public's probably pretty happy with the hypertechnical way the Court figures out the meaning of that word.

The question is a simple one:  Are you shooting "at" an occupied motor vehicle when:

(A) You and the gun you're firing are outside the vehicle you're shooting "at";
(B) Your hand and the gun are inside the vehicle you're shooting "at" but the rest of your body is outside it; and
(C) You and the gun are inside the vehicle.

Cleary, the answer to (A) is "Yes" and the answer to (C) is "No."  What about (B)?

The California Supreme Court unanimously holds that, yes, you're shooting "at" a vehicle even if the gun and your hand are inside the vehicle at the time.  The Court admits that the statute is ambiguous, and on that basis, the Court of Appeal applied the rule of lenity to interpret the statue in favor of the criminal defendant.  But the California Supreme Court reverses.  Holding that because we know that the Legislature didn't want people shooting at cars, this legislative history "breaks the tie" and means -- as in virtually every case -- that the rule of lenity is meaningless.

Of course, the Legislature probably didn't want people shooting at an occupied vehicle from inside a vehicle as well -- since that may well have the same consequences (death, broken glass, car crashes, etc.) as shooting from outside.  The California Supreme Court doesn't really have an awesome answer to why it's analysis doesn't also establish that liability exists even in (C).
But that's neither here nor there.  We don't like criminal defendants parsing the meaning of a word any more than we liked President Clinton doing it.  So there.