Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dep't of ABC v. ABC Appeals Bd. (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 17, 2017)

After a long holiday, we get some interesting published opinions from the California Court of Appeal.

Here's one I think you'll like.

It's a straightforward question.  You might not even think it worthy of an 18-page opinion (though I'd disagree.).

To be clear:  It's not an easy question (at least not from my perspective), and reasonable minds might well disagree about it.  Indeed, as I was reading the opinion, I got the feeling there was a dissent, but there wasn't.

It's not even a question that requires you to know any context.  Or facts.  Or anything.  It's simply a categorization question.

Here it is:

When you hand your driver's license to the checkout clerk at a store, and after examining the license to determine your age, the clerk responds "I would not have guessed it, you must get asked a lot," is what the clerk said a "question about [your] age"?

Let's break that down.  Is it a question?  It is about your age?

What do you think?  (And, yes, that's a question.)

Let me repeat again what the clerk said:  "I would not have guessed it, you must get asked a lot,"

(Notice that I didn't add any punctuation at the end, lest I prejudice your view.)

Statement?  Question?

The Court of Appeal holds that it's not a "question" at all, but rather is a statement.

You could interpret it one of two ways.  First, you could say that it's a statement.  "I  would not have guessed it" is clearly a statement, not a question.  "You must get asked a lot" is less clear.  Maybe it's a statement.  Facially it is.  Indeed, facially, it's a strong statement.  You must get asked that a lot.  So don't even bother responding, because it's obvious.  A must.

But you could also easily view it as a question.  Essentially, "You must get asked a lot, right?"  And in common parlance, we'd usually take it that way.  "Must" doesn't actually mean "must".  Ironically, it means more like "maybe".  As in, "You might get asked that a lot.  Do you?"  A question.

What's riding on all of this, by the way, is whether a particular CVS gets suspended from selling booze for 15 days.  Because the ABC uses underage decoys to try to buy alcohol, and (at least in this case) has them present a valid driver's license that clearly shows that the person is UNDER 21 to see if the store will nonetheless accept it.  As the clerk did here.

But the regulations also provide that the underage decoy has to honestly answer all "questions about [his or her] age."  So if, for example, the clerk said "How old are you?", they'd have to answer "18".

So what about the question/statement here?

The decoy didn't say anything.  He just kept silent.  The Court of Appeal says that's okay because the clerk wasn't asking a question, but was merely making a statement.

The English language is a funny thing.  Grammatically what the clerk said was indeed probably a statement.  But we'd all understand it to nonetheless be a question.  If someone said that to you -- in this context, especially -- and you stayed silent, that'd be considered rude, I think.  You'd have been "asked" a question and refused to answer it.  We expect you to "answer" by saying "Yeah, I get that a lot" or "No, this is the first time" or something like that.

And the fact that most of the normal ways people usually respond to a statement/question like this begin with either "Yes" or "No" also tends to suggest that we understand that statement to in fact be a question -- one that "requires" an affirmative or negative response, either expressly or by implication.

There's further complexity involved, too.  A statement can easily be made into a question just by how it's uttered.  "You're 22." is different than "You're 22?", the only difference being the raised pitch at the end.  But we don't know exactly how the question/statement here was asked because (1) we were not there, and (2) only have the decoy's testimony about what was allegedly said (and even then, it's just paraphrased).

Interesting stuff.  (Or, "Interesting stuff?")