Monday, September 14, 2009


The Washington State Supreme Court published an opinion last week in which they ruled that the police can get a search warrant to obtain blood for the purpose of determining the blood alcohol content of a suspect drunk driver. One part of the decision caught my eye.

When interpreting a statute, our primary goal is to effectuate legislative intent. In re Custody of Shields, 157 Wn.2d 126, 140, 136 P.3d 117 (2006). Where the statute’s meaning is plain and unambiguous, we derive legislative intent from the plain language of the statute. State ex rel. Royal v. Bd. of Yakima County Comm'rs, 123 Wn.2d 451, 457-58, 869 P.2d 56 (1994). If a statute’s language is ambiguous, we construe the statute “‘in the manner that best fulfills the legislative purpose and intent.’” Id. at 459 (quoting In re Marriage of Kovacs, 121 Wn.2d 795, 804, 854 P.2d 629 (1993)).


Although we hold that the implied consent statute’s plain language allows the State to pursue a blood alcohol test pursuant to a warrant, we note that even if we were to find the statute ambiguous, an analysis of legislative intent would lead us to the same result.

While this certainly appears to be an open-and-shut case based on the interpretation of the law alone, the justices wandered into the legislative intent area anyway. Am I for it or against doing that? Well, it's difficult to say. I like the use of some common sense in the matter, but unfortunately the law and common sense do not always mesh. If you interpret the law as it is written then there is the possibility that someone could make a new set of facts fit within a law it was not intended for, for example, the case of the police officer in Kansas who was charged with federal wired fraud charges for emailing nude pictures of himself to a woman while he was on duty thus defrauding the public of his services. His conduct is more along the lines of abuse of his position, sexual harassment, and possibly obstruction of justice. Federal wire fraud? That's a huge stretch for me. And if you were the person being charged under those conditions you'd probably think so too.

Another possibility is the unintended consequence where the text of the law is clear enough and seems to make sense, but its effect on a group was not made known or considered until after the law took effect. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act is an example. Second-hand stores, small businesses and crafters will suffer immensely if the law is effected and enforced fully.

Should judges look at the legislative intent? Should they even if the law is clearly interpreted? That's a tough call. Even on a case-by-case basis you can have someone convincingly argue both sides.

No comments: