Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Summary 2011 WY 115

Summary of Decision August 3, 2011

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Case Name: Jones v. State

Citation: 2011 WY 115

Docket Number: S-10-0241


Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County, Honorable W. Thomas Sullins, Judge

Representing Appellant (Defendant): Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Appellate Counsel; Kirk A. Morgan, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel.

Representing Appellee (Plaintiff): Gregory A. Phillips, Attorney General; Terry L. Armitage, Deputy Attorney General; D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Stewart M. Young, Faculty Director, Prosecution Assistance Program; Jessica Y. Frint, Student Director, Prosecution Assistance Program.

Date of Decision: August 3, 2011

Facts: Appellant pled guilty to a third battery against a household member. He appeals the district court’s Judgment and Sentence, contending that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-501(f)(ii), which prescribes the punishment for that crime, is unconstitutionally vague because it fails to give a person of ordinary sensibility fair notice of its meaning. He argues that the word “after” in the phrase “after having been convicted” is subject to multiple interpretations. He contends that the word “after” may be intended as a conjunction to introduce the dependent clause in Section 501(f)(ii), or alternatively, that it may be used to indicate time or sequential order. According to Appellant, under the first interpretation, a battery becomes a felony upon a third or subsequent offense. Under the second interpretation, Appellant contends the statute would make a battery a felony only upon a fourth or subsequent conviction. Appellant further contends that the rule of lenity, which requires that a criminal defendant receive a lenient interpretation of an ambiguous statute, should apply.

Issues: Whether Wyo. Stat. 6-2-501(f)(ii) is void and unconstitutionally ambiguous as it is uncertain and susceptible to more than one meaning.

Holdings: A statute is unambiguous if its wording is such that reasonable persons are able to agree as to its meaning with consistency and predictability. Unless another meaning is clearly intended, words and phrases shall be taken in their ordinary and usual sense. Conversely, a statute is ambiguous only if it is found to be vague or uncertain and subject to varying interpretations. In determining whether a statute is ambiguous an inquiry is made respecting the ordinary and obvious meaning of the words employed according to their arrangement and connection. The statute is construed as a whole, giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence, and all parts of the statute are construed in pari materia. When a statute is sufficiently clear and unambiguous, effect is given to the plain and ordinary meaning of the words and there is no need to resort to the rules of statutory construction.

Read as a whole, Wyo. Stat. 6-2-501(f)(ii) is not ambiguous. First, a plain language interpretation of the statute suggests that “after” is used as a conjunction to introduce the phrase “having been convicted . . . within the previous ten (10) years.” Under this interpretation, the statute simply requires that the third battery offense must have occurred within ten years of a previous battery or other enumerated crime. Second, the penalty portion of the statute sets forth a clear and logical progression from a first battery, as set forth in Section 501(d), to a second battery, as set forth in Section 501(f)(i), to a third or subsequent battery, as set forth in Section 501(f)(ii). Third, the lead-in paragraph to subsections (f)(i) and (f)(ii) indicates that the penalty prescribed in subsection (f)(ii) applies to a third battery. That paragraph states that “A household member as defined by Wyo. Stat. 35-21-102 who commits a second or subsequent battery against any other household member shall be punished as follows.” If, as Appellant contends, subsections (f)(i) and (f)(ii) described the penalties relating to third and fourth or subsequent batteries, respectively, rather than second and third or subsequent batteries, then there would be no separate penalty in Section 501(f) applicable to a second battery. This interpretation directly contradicts the clear statement in Section 501(f) that subsections (f)(i) and (f)(ii) apply to a “second or subsequent battery.”

When determining whether a statute provides sufficiently clear notice of what it intends to proscribe, not only the statutory language is considered but also any prior court decisions which have placed a limiting construction on the statute or have applied it to specific conduct. At least ten cases involving defendants who were sentenced under the enhanced sentencing provision of Wyo. Stat. 6-2-501(f)(ii) based on a third conviction of battery against a household member have previously been before the court.

Wyo. Stat. 6-2-501(f)(ii) is not ambiguous. Consequently, the rule of lenity does not apply, for where the statute under consideration is unambiguous, the rule of lenity has no role to play.


J. Burke delivered the opinion for the court.

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