Why We Need A Law Dictionary

When I was admitted to our “family” law school in 1979, my cousin, Harlan, gave me the gift of a Black’s Law Dictionary, Revised Third Edition.  Inside is an inscription which, to this day, reminds me why I don’t like Harlan. Yet, it was my introduction to the secret mystical language of the law, despite its omission of stercus accidit.

Little did I appreciate, back then, how mystical that language would be.  At A Public Defender, Gideon writes about the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Ward.

The Court was presented with the following factual scenario: a man who works for a company in Massachusetts that does business with a company in Connecticut commits a crime here in CT and then returns to his home in MA. Twenty years later, he is arrested and charged with the commission of that crime.

Twenty years is not only a long time, but well beyond the statute of limitations in most states. Most, but apparently not all.  Connecticut has a tolling provision that provides that the statute doesn’t run during the period that a person “has fled from and resided out of this state.”  “So what,” you say. The defendant never “fled” from arrest and prosecution.” Ah, that’s because you don’t have the Connecticut edition of the law dictionary.

To non-lawyers, fled means, well, fled.

The verb “to flee” generally invokes the image of a person running away from a negative event or circumstance. And certainly in the criminal context, the word means to run away from the criminal consequences of one’s illegal actions, viz., an investigation or prosecution.

But to the erudite Yankee judge, it means something entirely different.

We note, however, that the common usage of the term fled connotes a meaning that a defendant is running away from something. The term fled as we have ascertained from the dictionary definition means to run away from danger—in the context of § 54-193 (c), we  understand this term to mean investigation—and hurry toward a place of security—in the context of § 54-193 (c), we understand this term to mean outside of the jurisdiction. We conclude, therefore, that § 54-193 (c) may toll the statute of limitations when a defendant  absents himself from the jurisdiction with reason to believe that an investigation may ensue as the result of his actions.

See how that works? Since the untried, unconvicted defendant should have known that he was guilty of a crime, the court can impute motive to his leaving the state to go home, impose a “reason to believe that an investigation may ensure as the result of his actions,” and convert his returning to his home in Massachusetts into fleeing the non-existent investigation that may ensue in Connecticut.  In other words, he fled, even though he didn’t.

And then there’s the Kentucky version of the law dictionary, as related by Kevin Underhill at Lowering the Bar.

First, the facts. WKYT reported on Monday that a 55-year-old Jessamine County man had been cited for riding while intoxicated. The man said he was trail-riding with some friends and had stopped to have something to eat “when the deputy arrived and told me to get off my horse.” He explained that he is severely diabetic and hadn’t eaten, and that is why he staggered after dismounting, not because he was intoxicated.

Certainly a viable explanation, but for the fact that “his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, that he was found to be carrying rolling papers and a bag of marijuana, and that his saddle bags contained “several beers and a mason jar which he identified as ‘moonshine.'”  Remember, this is Kentucky.

As it turns out, Kentucky has a law prohibiting “[o]perating a vehicle not a motor vehicle while under influence of intoxicants or substance which may impair driving ability prohibited.”  So what exactly is “a vehicle not a motor vehicle?”  Big Wheel? Check. Razor scooter? Absolutely. Law mower? Why even ask. But horse?

A horse is an animal. A horse isn’t operated, but ridden. If one’s driving ability is impaired, so what? As every horseback rider, knows, the horse knows the way back to the barn. And if you leave the door open, the horse can even “drive” himself. Do you know any Big Wheels that can do that? I didn’t think so.

Yet, the language of Kentucky law prevails.

All very interesting, said no one, but aren’t there often statutes that define certain legal terms? Yes, and there’s one here. And sadly for Rooster Cogburn, it defines “vehicle” as including “All agencies for the transportation of persons or property over or upon the public highways of the Commonwealth.…” So while I still like my “animal is not a vehicle” argument, Kentucky has precluded it.

While they just could have prohibited drunk horseback riding, the inclusion of the phrase “all agencies” seems to cover a horse, not to mention piggyback rides from a really special agent of the DEA.  Almost interestingly, Lawprof Dave Hoffman at  Concurring Opinions picks up on Kevin’s post to suggest that this statutory interpretation would make a good law school exercise.

Seems like a good example to use in a class on statutory interpretation.  Isn’t the obvious question what an “agency” is for the purposes of Kentucky law?

Or maybe a better, though less obvious to a scholar, question would be why can’t legislators write laws that say what they mean? In the alternative, another question might be why shouldn’t judges refuse to play along with laws that require contorted definitions in order to make sure the state always wins?

Of course, if they taught law students to use words with actual meanings, there would be no need for Black’s Law Dictionary and  Bryan Garner would have to find a real job, like writing fiction books.


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