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The Rule of Lenity

If you have ever tried to read the statutory language of a particular law, you know they are rarely written in a manner that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. It is easy for politicians to talk about passing a new law, but it isn’t easy work for the people who have to write it. It can be difficult for lawmakers to get the right language to cover every situation intended to be covered by the statute. On the other hand, the language must also be specific enough that it won’t be struck down as unconstitutionally vague or overly broad.

Sometimes, in an effort to “cover all the bases”, lawmakers may unintentionally create laws that overlap with one another or laws that are so general that they may be interpreted in different, unintended ways. This is where the “Rule of Lenity” comes into play.

The Rule of Lenity is a legal principle that the Courts use to resolve conflicting or overlapping laws. Simply put, citizens have a right to know what the laws are, and what the punishments are for breaking those laws. So if a law conflicts with another law, or if the language is so vague that it may be legally interpreted in multiple ways, we are entitled to have the Court interpret the law in the way most favorable to us.

Last month, I was able to use the Rule of Lenity to get my client’s felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor. The State had offered my client 3 years of felony probation and refused to budge. But after reviewing the statutes the State had used to indict my client, I conducted some legal research and came across the Court of Appeals decision in the case of Gordon v. State. Fortunately for me, and my client, this case was exactly on point, involved the same two statutes as our case, and had just been decided only a few months before.

Our case was the perfect situation to apply the Rule of Lenity. The short facts of my case were that my client’s car was stolen in one county and recovered in another. She first reported her car stolen and it was recovered. Some days later, she tried to make an insurance claim and was told that she needed to file a report in the county where it was actually stolen. So she did that. Only this time she gave the date of theft as occurring a couple days after the car had already been recovered. She said it was an honest mistake (and she actually did give the officer the report number for the original report so it would be easy to see the original date she gave). The State’s theory was that she changed the date to try to get insurance coverage for the damage to her car (she didn’t have comprehensive coverage at the time the first report was made). She was charged with Giving False Statements (a felony) and Giving False Information to a Law Enforcement Officer (a misdemeanor).

* I’ll pause here to explain that it is extremely common, in fact it’s probably the standard operating procedure now, for prosecutors to charge a person as many ways as they can for the same conduct. It gives them an advantage in getting higher bonds, it gives them an edge in negotiating, and it makes it easier at trial to throw it all up to the jury and “hope something sticks.”

So my client made one false report, but the State charged her with both a felony and a misdemeanor.

Remember how I said laws can be confusing and are rarely clear or concise? Here are the two statutes that were applied:

§ 16-10-20

“A person who knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; makes a false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or makes or uses any false writing or document, knowing the same to contain any false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry, in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of state government or of the government of any county, city, or other political subdivision of this state shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years, or both.”

So for my case, let’s pull out just the relevant parts of that. “A person who knowingly and willfully…makes a false statement…in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the government of any county…shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment for….one [to] five years, or both.” And the important part here is that the police department is a “department or agency of government.”

Now look at the second crime with which my client was charged:

§ 16-10-26

“A person who willfully and knowingly gives or causes a false report of a crime to be given to any law enforcement officer or agency of this state is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Now this law is MUCH clearer. It’s so clear, in fact, that once you clear out all the extra wording of the first statute, determine that police officers fit under “department or agency of government”, and compare the two, you can easily see that they are both criminalizing the same conduct under the facts of my case.

The important thing to remember is that this doesn’t mean both of these laws will always overlap, in fact there are many instances where they won’t. For instance, I could put false information on a legal document, falsify an application for various permits, or lie to a government official who isn’t a police officer, and I could be convicted of a felony.

However, since the alleged lie was told to a police officer, and the legislature specifically says it is a misdemeanor to lie to law enforcement, the Rule of Lenity says I am entitled to be sentenced for the misdemeanor.

So I called up the prosecutor, I explained how the Rule of Lenity applied to this case, I sent her a copy of the opinion from the Court of Appeals, and I told the prosecutor that she could no longer get a felony conviction on my client. Since there was nothing they could do about it, my client got the misdemeanor.

The Official Code of Georgia is constantly changing. New laws are added every year, some may be changed or reworded, and occasionally a law might be taken off the books. Additionally, the Georgia Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, and the U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court are constantly issuing opinions that interpret, shape, and change the law. It can be difficult to keep up. But with the current state of the criminal justice system, the awesome power of the Government to choose who to prosecute and what to charge, and the nearly unlimited resources available to achieve that conviction, it’s more important than ever to hire a competent criminal defense attorney who will navigate the latest changes in the law and use them to your advantage.

What they call “technicalities” I call your RIGHTS. If you need an aggressive, experienced criminal defense lawyer, call the Tevis Law Firm today at (404) 907-2527.