Interpreting the Law

Courts continually have to interpret the law’s meaning, in fact, that is the primary function of the courts. Our elected legislatures pass laws (typically called “statutes”) but then courts have to decide what they mean. When judges read statutes, they will typically give words their “plain and ordinary” meanings. However, if the legislature defines a word a certain way, then the court will use that definition. In fact, here is what the Utah Supreme Court said: “When interpreting statutory language, we look first to the plain meaning of the statute.” State v. Larsen. “We only resort to other methods if the language is ambiguous. State v. Vigil. We routinely “assume ‘the Legislature used each term advisedly, and we give effect to each term according to its ordinary and accepted meaning.’ ” State v. Candelario.

So, often, a case will come down to the definition of a word, and a jury must decide what the plain and ordinary meaning of that word is. For example, assume you are accused of running a red light. The law says that you must be “in the intersection” before the light turns red, or your are guilty. Some people think half the car must in the intersection. Others, say, nope, if even one inch of the front of the car has passed the white line, you are in the intersection.

Have you ever been to the four-corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico? If so, you probably stood in the four states at the same time by just touching your toe on the spot where all the states met.

This is why it is KEY to look up all words in a statute, and see how they can be applied. Because the legislature does not define most of the words that make up our laws, courts will look to a variety of sources for assistance. One such source is similar terms in different statutory sections. For instance, a court could look to a child welfare statute’s definition to assist in defining a term in the criminal statute. The Florida Court of Appeals faced just such a situation in Burke v. State, 48 So.3d 943 (2010).

In December of the year 2010 the Florida Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a Florida Circuit Court child abuse conviction.[1] The question on appeal was whether the evidence presented in the circuit court trial was sufficient to support a child abuse conviction. In particular, the appeals court had to determine if the evidence presented was sufficient to support the physical or mental injury component of the child abuse statute.

In Florida, a person can be convicted of criminal child abuse if they “knowingly or willfully abuse a child without causing great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement to the child.” The statute describes child abuse as the “intentional infliction of physical or mental injury upon a child;” or “an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child.”[2] However, the criminal statute does not adequately describe the extent of harm the child must suffer in order to support a child abuse conviction. Many of the terms used in Florida’s child abuse statute are not defined. Because of this, Florida’s Courts look to the child welfare statutes for guidance in defining the terms used in the criminal child abuse statute. Specifically, harm to a child’s health or welfare can occur when a person inflicts or allows to be inflicted upon the child physical, mental, or emotional injury. In determining whether harm has occurred, the following factors should be considered in evaluating any physical, mental, or emotional injury to a child: “the age of the child; any prior history of injuries to the child; the location of the injury on the body of the child; the multiplicity of the injury; and the type of trauma inflicted.” Such injury includes, but is not limited to willful acts that result in, for example, “sprains, dislocations, or cartlidge damage.”[3] We run into the same types of issues right here in Utah, so it is important to have your attorney look at them all, and know how a court is going to define a word.

When the Florida appeals court considered the criminal statute, they, fortunately for the person accused, decided that the law required something more than mild or passing discomfort. They said, the defendant’s acts of twisting the boy’s arm, pressing him against his knee and holding him by the hair did not result in an injury or “harm” as described in the child welfare statute. The Court said the boy claimed only that his hair was injured, but he did not explain what that injury might be. None of the other witnesses mentioned his hair, and no one stated that his arm was even bruised. Simply, the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish a physical injury.

The court went on to say the same was true for the “mental injury” component of the criminal statute.[4] They said the child welfare statute defines mental injury to a child as “an injury to the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by a discernible and substantial impairment in the ability to function within the normal range of performance and behavior.[5] They said, the boy was shaken-up and frightened by his father’s behavior. However, the State presented no evidence that the incident resulted in an impairment of the boy’s ability to function within the normal range of performance and behavior. Simply, the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish a mental injury.

So, you can see why it is not a good idea to represent yourself. There are tests and definitions that the public may be totally unaware of.

Call Greg Smith and Associates of you have any questions.

[1] Burke v. State of Florida, 48 So.3d 943 (2010)

[2] Section 827.03(1), Florida Statutes (2007)

[3] Section 39.01, Florida Statutes (2007)

[4] Section 827.03(1), Florida Statutes (2007)

[5] Section 39.01(41), Florida Statutes (2007)

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