Here’s an interesting little legal issue — one that is apparently easier to resolve properly if you have not had legal training.
California Penal Code section 288.7(a) reads as follows:
Any person 18 years of age or older who engages in sexual intercourse or sodomy with a child who is 10 years of age or younger is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 25 years to life.
That simple language in bold is apparently too difficult for some judges to understand.
Our hypothetical defendant is 19 years old. The evidence shows that he met the victim at her 10th birthday party. One week later, he had sex with her. Is he subject to the penalties provided by this law?
As a common sense person, dear reader, you are saying: of course he is! The victim was 10 when he had sex with her. She just had her 10th birthday! And the penalties apply if the victim is 10 or younger. What’s the problem?
It turns out that at least one California court saw a problem. That court said “10 years of age or younger” means “exactly 10 years old, not one day more” . . . or younger. In other words, the day after the victim’s birthday, she is no longer “10 years of age of younger” . . . according to these legal geniuses.
That conclusion is, of course, absurd. If you asked this girl how old she is, she would say: “ten.” If you asked her mother how old she is, she would say: “ten.” If you asked all her friends and relatives how old she is, they would say: “ten.” If the statute says the victim must be “10 years of age OR younger” and she is “10 years of age,” then the statute applies.
I don’t care what the legislative “intent” was. I don’t care about the “rule of lenity” or any other mumbo jumbo. Not in this case. Because here the language is clear. The girl is ten. The statute applies. Next case!
This is what I mean when I stress that “legislative intent” should not matter to the interpretation of a statute. This court actually bemoaned the fact that there was no legislative history available to help out. The court also noted that several other cases in other jurisdictions had resolved similar issues in the same silly way (as well as several that resolved it properly). The court further noted that, in many cases, “courts have been able to resolve the issue on the basis of an illuminating legislative history.”
Legislative history. Aaaaaargh!
So, let’s say a legislator didn’t like the law, and was pushing to make the victim’s age “11 years or younger” before harsher penalties kicked in — but ended up voting for the statute in a pander to the public. He could simply have a staffer slip something into the legislative record talking about how “10 years or age or younger” really excludes anyone who is 10 years and a day. And one suspects certain idiot judges would pay attention to that kind of dishonest crap.
Not me. To me, the words mean what they mean. Trying to divine some “legislative intent” from clues in speeches and notes from committee meetings is a fool’s errand. The plain language should control.
Luckily, sanity may win out. The California Supreme Court has granted review and the case may not be cited. At least one other court has come out with a sensible ruling going the proper way.
But when you throw common sense out the window, the law can take the most obvious, plain meanings of words, and twist them into something that would make the man on the street furrow his brow and say “What now??”
It’s not always lawyers who do this, mind you. But they seem to be mighty good at it.