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The “Rule of Lenity” in D.C. Koehler Law

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by Jamison Koehler on June 12, 2022
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According to the “Rule of Lenity,” a court docket ought to construe any ambiguity in the language of a felony statute in favor of the defendant.  The stakes in a legal situation are high.  The imagining at the rear of this rule of statutory design – also identified as the “rule of rigorous construction” — is that you want to be make certain that the legislature really supposed to proscribe the conduct in question just before you upend a person’s life with a criminal conviction.  

In two modern viewpoints, the D.C. Court docket of Appeals situations has interpreted application of this rule in the nation’s capitol.  In In re Willie Richardson, __ A.3d. __ (D.C. 2022), for instance, the appellant sought to use the basic principle to a circumstance in which he argued that four Fb messages he despatched in violation of a non permanent security order (TPO) constituted just one felony offense, not 4.  

The Court docket described the recent state of the legislation in D.C. as follows:  

The rule of lenity states that criminal statutes really should be strictly construed and that ambiguities ought to be resolved in favor of the defendant.  However, this rule of statutory construction is induced only if we can initial say that a supplied statute’s language, composition, intent and legistative leaves its which means genuinely in question.  (Internal citations and quotations omitted.)

The D.C. Court docket of Appeals described the rule in similar manner in a more current case, Craig Lee v. United States, __ A.3d __ (D.C. 2022):

The rule of lenity is only employed to solve ambiguity in penal statutes.  The rule . . . can suggestion the equilibrium in favor of criminal defendants only the place, special of the rule, a penal statute’s language, composition, goal and legislative record depart its this means genuinely in question.  Importantly, the rule is a secondary canon of design, and is to be invoked only exactly where the statutory language, construction, intent, and record leave the intent of the legislature in legitimate question.  (Internal citations and quotations omitted.). 

In both equally cases, the Court docket identified that the rule did not apply.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also weighed in as element of his concurrence in Shular v. United States, 140 S.Ct. 779, 789 (2020).  The courts must initial use, he wrote, “all of the conventional tools of statutory interpretation.”  Only then, if the statute continues to be “grievously ambiguous [such] that the courtroom can make no far more than a guess as to what the statute implies,” will the rule of lenity utilize. 


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