State v. Vierra (ICA June 25, 2008)
Background. Vierra was cited for driving without a license four times between June 26, 2002 and December 8, 2004. When she was cited, Vierra also had five prior convictions for driving without a license: one in 2001, three in 2000, and one in 1998. The trial for the four citations was held in 2005. The driving-without-a-license statute has enhanced sentencing for people who have prior DWOL convictions within a five year period. Vierra argued that the five-year clock begins at the time of conviction, not the offense, and only one of the prior convictions counts. The State argued that the five-year clock begins at the time the offense was committed, and thus Vierra was subject to the enhanced sentence. The district court agreed with the State and Vierra was sentenced under the enhanced penalty.
Five Years from when? A person cannot drive a vehicle without first obtaining a license. HRS § 286-102(a). Driving without a license is generally a petty misdemeanor (30 days jail, $1,000 fine, or both). HRS § 286-136(a). However, "[a]ny person who is convicted of violating [the DWOL statute] . . . shall be subject to [a misdemeanor] if the person has two or more prior convictions for the same offense in the preceding five[-]year period." HRS § 286-136(b). The ICA rejected Vierra's claim that the penalty statute sets the five-year clock at the time of conviction. The ICA explained that the words "[a]ny person who is convicted" is merely an introductory clause. According to the ICA, HRS § 286-136(b) fails to plainly indicate when the five-year period is to begin, and, therefore, it is ambiguous.
Not all Legislative History is Equal. Because it is ambiguous, the ICA delved into the legislative history surrounding HRS § 286-136(b). See Barnett v. State, 91 Hawai'i 20, 31, 979 P.2d 1046, 1057 (1999). The ICA found that most of the reports from the legislature suggested that the five-year clock begins at the time of the offense rather than conviction. The ICA also found no merit in language from a Conference Committee Report that referred to "third convictions" rather than offenses. The ICA acknowledged that conference committee reports usually provide a better indication of the legislature's intent than a committee report of the House or Senate, but not in this case. The ICA explained that the conference committee report here provided a general summary of the amendments, while the House Judiciary Committee Report was more specific to the issue at hand and, thus, "trumps the summary description of the statute contained in the Conference Committee Report."
A Hierarchy of Legislative History? While courts examine the legislative history of a law when the language of the law is ambiguous, finding support in the legislative history (or anything at all) can be difficult. Has the ICA fashioned a general rule that conference committee reports tend to be better indicators of the legislature's intent than reports from the House or Senate? Perhaps it has. After all, the legislature's intent is the primary goal in interpreting statutes and when the legislature reports as a whole, one can assume that that voice is closer to the intent of the whole. But the ICA did not apply this general guideline here. Instead, it explained that because the more specific House sub-committee report was on point, it was better evidence of the entire legislature's intent. In other words, not all legislative history is equal. Some reports are better indicators than others.
The Sensible Thing to do. The ICA also noted that "a rational, sensible and practical interpretation [of a statute] is preferred to one which is unreasonable or impracticable." State v. Lobendahn, 71 Haw. 111, 112, 784 P.2d 872, 873 (1989). This principle of statutory interpretation is similar to the one that rejects constructions leading to absurd results. Keliipuleole v. Wilson, 85 Hawai'i 217, 222, 941 P.2d 300, 305 (1997). The ICA held that setting the five-year period at the time the offense was committed over the time of conviction leads to more rational and sensible results. According to the ICA, if the five-year clock began at the time of conviction, there would be an incentive to delay sentencing proceedings with the chance of limiting the maximum penalty to a petty misdemeanor.
What if it's not Ambiguous? It is unclear whether the court can apply the reasonable-sensible-reading principle to an unambiguous statute. Courts have been reluctant to discern legislative intent when the statute is unambiguous. However, when the statute would lead to an absurd result, courts are more likely to depart from the plain language. Does this mean that all statutes--even those plain as day--are subject to a reasonable, sensible, and practical reading? It would seem so. Absurd results are never accepted, even when the language is plain. The same could be said for unreasonable or impracticable interpretations.
Consistent with Other Statutes. Finally, the ICA examined other statutes with repeat-offender enhancements. See HRS § 1-16 ("What is clear in one statute may be called upon in aid to explain what is doubtful in another."). Enhanced sentencing for offenses in the traffic code are set at the time of the offense, not conviction. HRS §§ 291-4, 291E-61(b)(3) and (4), and 291E-61.5. The ICA also pointed out that mandatory minimum terms under the Hawai'i Penal Code calculate the time period for counting prior convictions based on the time of the offense. HRS § 706-606.5(2). These statutes, according to the ICA, are analogous to HRS § 286-136(b).
Judge Foley's Dissent. Judge Foley dissented on the grounds that HRS § 286-136(b) simply and plainly provides enhanced sentencing for convictions within a five-year period, not offenses. When the terms of a statute are plain, unambiguous, and explicit, courts are "not at liberty look beyond that language for a different meaning." State v. Mueller, 102 Hawai'i 391, 395, 76 P.3d 943, 947 (2003). Judge Foley also pointed out that even if the legislative history was scrutinized, the conference committee report refers to an enhanced penalty for "a third conviction within a five[-]year period." The distinction among committee reports explained by the ICA majority was not addressed.