Statutory Interpretation: Ifs, Ands, Buts, and Shall

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

State v. Carreon, decided August 11, 2014 rests on statutory interpretation. Put simply, statutes should be read based on the plain meaning of all the language used and if there is any ambiguity then the legislative attempt is examined and considered. The defendant in this case sought post-conviction relief for a sentence of a $756 fine combined with a ten-day jail term for his third offense of driving unlicensed. It should be noted that driving unlicensed is a different crime than driving with a suspended license. Driving with a suspended license is viewed as a more serious offense because it is flagrantly ignoring a court-imposed sanction whereas driving unlicensed is a matter of not proving one is qualified or paying the necessary fees to drive.

Statutory Interpretation

The first clause of the penalty provisions of the statute states “a person violating this section shall be subject to a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than 60 days.” The second clause is prefaced by the word “but” and then refers to someone who has never been licensed and states that “he shall be subject to a fine of not less than $200 and, in addition, the court shall issue an order to the commission requiring the commission to refuse to issue a license to operate a motor vehicle to the person for a period of not less than 180 days.” The ambiguity first is focused on the word “or.” Oftentimes “or” is seen as a disjunctive word meaning that the things it separates are not related but rather it is one OR the other so to speak. “And” is often seen as a conjunctive word meaning it links the two phrases on either side of it. In this case the presumption is that is that a person violating the statute can only be subjected to a prison term or a fine but not both. However the word “shall” in the second clause oftentimes is synonymous with “must.” So if an unlicensed driver MUST pay a fine of no less than $200 and one cannot be fined and jailed this would suggest that unlicensed drivers can never be jailed which seems contrary to the legislative intent. Due to this confusion the court ultimately interpreted the second clause as circumscribing the first part of the statute but not overriding it. This means that an unlicensed driver could be fined or imprisoned but not both. For this reason the defendant’s sentence was remanded to the Law Division for re-sentencing and at that time it can be determined whether a fine or a custodial term will be imposed, but not both.

The point of this blog was to take a relatively simple statute and deconstruct it to help people further understand the way judges interpret the law and how seemingly irrelevant words in day-to-day language can change the entire meaning of a statute when interpreted by different people.

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