A Straight-Forward case of Statutory Construction

State v. Woodfall (HSC April 8, 2009)

Background.  Woodfall tried to cash a check at a bank.  The check from Design Build, Inc. was written to "Christopher B. Bailey," a fictitious person.  Woodfall told the teller that he was Bailey and presented an Idaho driver's license for Bailey.  The teller, however, discovered that Design Build had insufficient funds and called the police.  The police arrested Woodfall and discovered that Christopher B. Bailey was a fictitious person.  Woodfall was charged with identify theft in the 2d degree (HRS § 708-839.7).  Woodfall's motion to dismiss was denied.  Woodfall appealed.  The ICA affirmed.

An Ambiguous Statute.  A person commits identify theft in the 2d degree when the person seeks or causes "a transmission of any personal information of another . . . with the intent to commit the offense of theft" in the 2d degree.  HRS § 708-839.7.  "Personal information" is defined as "information associated with an actual or fictitious person."  HRS § 708-800.  There is no special definition for the word "another."  The Hawai'i Penal Code, however, defines "another" as "any other person" and "person" means "any natural person."  HRS §§ 701-118(8) and (7).  Thus, according to the HSC, there is a conflict in the criminal statute.  "Personal information" includes fictitious persons, but "another" does not.  Thus, the phrase "personal information of another" is limited to actual people, as Woodfall argued.

When Ambiguous, Courts can look to Extrinsic aids.  When a statute is ambiguous, "the courts may resort to extrinsic aids in determining legislative intent, such as legislative history."  State v. Bayly, 118 Hawai'i 1, 7, 185 P.3d 186, 192 (2008).  The HSC recognized that there was a problem with the plain language of the statute and turned to the legislative history.  In its initial form before the Legislature, the purpose of the statute was to include criminal penalties for the "deceptive use of a fictitious identity."  That purpose, however, was stricken through the various drafts and reports that wind their way through the legislative process.  In the end, the purpose of the statute was to criminalize "identify theft of another individual."  Nonetheless, the "fictitious person" included among "personal information" became law.  According to the HSC, this complicated history showed that the meaning behind the statute was not entirely clear.

And Finally, the rule of Lenity.  The rule of lenity applies when the statute is ambiguous and when the legislative history provides no guidance.  See State v. Aiwohi, 109 Hawai'i 115, 118, 123 P.3d 1210, 1213 (2005).  "Under the rule of lenity, the statute must be strictly construed against the government and in favor of the accused."  State v. Kalani, 108 Hawai'i 279, 288, 118 P.3d 1222, 1231 (2005).  According to the HSC, the statute was ambiguous because it was capable of having two competing constructions, and the legislative history was unavailing.  Thus, the rule of lenity applied.  In applying the rule, the HSC construed the statute narrowly and so the phrase "transmission of personal information of another" applies only to actual persons and not fictitious ones, despite the inclusion of the latter in the term "personal information."

Plain and Ambiguous?  Woodfall argued--and the HSC appeared to have agreed--that the plain language of the statute limited "personal information of another" to actual persons.  The HSC rejected the State's claim that the word "another" must encompass a fictitious person because it specifically refers to "personal information" because such a construction would add fictitious persons to the term "another" under the Hawai'i Penal Code, which is something courts cannot do.  After all, courts "cannot change the language of a statute, supply a want, or enlarge upon it in order to make it suit a certain state of facts."  State v. Mueller, 102 Hawai'i 391, 394, 76 P.3d 943, 946 (2003).  The HSC also rejected the State's argument that Woodfall's construction lead to an absurd result.  (It seemed reasonable to the HSC that identity theft should be intended to criminalize the theft of actual--as opposed to fictitious--identities.).  It would appear that the plain language of the statute would be the end of the matter.

Or would it?  "When there is doubt, doubleness of meaning, or indistinctiveness or uncertainty of an expression used in a statute, an ambiguity exists."  Gray v. Administrative Dir. of the Court, 84 Hawai'i 138, 148, 931 P.2d 580, 590 (1997).  The HSC never expressly stated that the statute was ambiguous.  Instead it concluded that both parties had plausible arguments.  Perhaps this is an example where the competing constructions left doubt, which is a rare form of ambiguity.  But that leads to trouble.  Does this mean that the court can consider whether the plain language of any statute leaves doubt as to its meaning? Wouldn't that undermine the entire notion that when the statute is plain and "unambiguous", the court's "sole duty is to give effect to its plain and obvious meaning"?  Carlisle v. One (1) Boat, 119 Hawai'i 245, 256, 195 P.3d 1177, 1188 (2008).   Is it a case of plain and ambiguous?


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