Tuesday, January 28, 2014

People v. White (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 28, 2014)

The voters recently reformed the Three Strikes Law to potentially lower sentences for people who didn't commit violent felonies as their third strike.  But defendants who were armed during their offenses aren't entitled to relief.  The voters thought that if you commit an offense and are packing, that's pretty much by definition serious.

But translating a common sense thought into words is sometimes difficult.  Especially at the margins.  Statutes generally employ general terms.  They get the point across, but in a close case, it's somewhat difficult to figure out what exactly those words mean.

Like here.

The relevant statutory words are "armed with a firearm".  You stay in prison for 25 to life if you were "armed with a firearm" "during the commission of the offense."

What that means is pretty straightforward in most cases.  Commit a burglary with a gun in your hand; boom, you're ineligible for relief.  Carry a gun while you do a drug deal:  Same thing.  For the majority of cases, the words -- and concept -- are easy to apply.

But what if being armed with a firearm is the offense?  In particular, does a conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm mean that you were "armed with a firearm" "during the commission of the offense?"  Yeah, sure, as the Court of Appeal explains, you were "armed" with the firearm because you had it.  But when that's the actual offense, I think it's a little strange to say that you were armed with the firearm during the offense.  It was the offense.  It's as if the statute says that you get an extra five years if you were naked during an offense.  If the actual offense for which you're convicted was being naked, do you really get the base level plus the five years?  It just seems a bit strange.  And surely was not what the voters were really thinking about when they voted on the law.

But the Court of Appeal adopts a straightfoward interpretation.  You were armed because you had a gun.  That was "during" your offense because it was at the same time.  QED.  Not eligible for relief.

I can't put my finger on exactly what bothers me here.  But I know that I have some lingering feeling that there's something wrong with doing literal textual interpretation when deciding how a text applies to a marginal situation that the voters surely did not actually consider.  There's part of me that thinks it's more important to talk about principles and values than the dictionary and grammatical usage of a given term that clearly was intended to speak to certain situations but not this one.

Of course, I hear Justice Scalia cackling in the background, telling me what a moron I am in this regard.  Maybe he's right.  But I still can't help wondering whether strict literalism is really the right way to go in a case like this.