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State v. Wainwright

Supreme Court of Vermont

December 20, 2013

State of Vermont
v.
Bryan Wainwright State of Vermont
v.
Matthew E. Wilder

On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Criminal Division David Suntag, J.

David W. Gartenstein and Steven M. Brown, Windham County Deputy State’s Attorneys, Brattleboro, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Dawn Matthews and Rebecca Turner, Appellate Defenders, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ.

DOOLEY, J.

¶ 1. In these consolidated appeals, we consider whether the same prior conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) may serve both to criminalize a refusal to submit to an evidentiary blood-alcohol test under 23 V.S.A. § 1201(b) and to enhance the penalty for that offense under 23 V.S.A. § 1210. The trial court held that the statute prohibited such dual use, and the State appeals. We reverse, and conclude that the plain language of the statute allows the same prior DUI conviction to be used both as an element of criminal refusal and to enhance the penalty for the refusal.

¶ 2. The material facts in the two cases before us may be briefly recounted. In State v. Wainwright, Docket No. 2012-213, defendant was charged with DUI, second offense, for refusing to submit to an evidentiary blood or breath test in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(b), which provides:

A person who has previously been convicted of a violation of this section shall not operate, attempt to operate, or be in actual physical control of any vehicle on a highway and refuse a law enforcement officer’s reasonable request under the circumstances for an evidentiary test where the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the person was in violation of subsection (a) of this section. [1]

The information alleged that Wainwright had been previously convicted of violating 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a) on July 8, 2008, and that this conviction triggered the application of § 1201(b). It also alleged that defendant was subject to a second-offense penalty, which provides that “[a] person convicted of violating section 1201 of this title who has been convicted of another violation of that section” shall be subject to a term of imprisonment of not more than two years, a fine of up to $1500, or both, and at least 200 hours of community service. [2] 23 V.S.A. § 1210(c).

¶ 3. In an entry order dated May 12, 2012, the trial court found no probable cause for the second-offense allegation. The court reasoned that the information alleged only one prior conviction of 23 V.S.A. § 1201, that the prior conviction was “an essential element of [the] present charge” of refusal pursuant to § 1201(b), and that the prior conviction could not also be considered “another violation of that section” under § 1210(c) to enhance the penalty for a second offense. The State moved for permission to appeal the order, which was granted.

¶ 4. In State v. Wilder, Docket No. 2013-010, defendant was charged with DUI, fourth offense, in violation of § 1201(b), for refusing to submit to an evidentiary test. The information alleged that defendant had been previously convicted of violating 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a) in October 1989, September 1992, and June 2011. In December 2012, the trial court issued an entry order finding no probable cause for the charge of DUI, fourth offense, reasoning—as in Wainwright —that “[g]iven the necessary use of one of the prior convictions to establish an element of the current charge, the same prior conviction cannot be considered ‘another violation’ of the same section.” Thus, the court concluded that the allegations supported at most a charge of DUI, third offense. We granted the State’s subsequent motion for permission to appeal, and consolidated the matter with Wainwright for purposes of review on appeal.

¶ 5. The State asserts that the trial court erred in concluding that the same prior conviction of § 1201(a) cannot be used both to criminalize a refusal under § 1201(b) and to enhance the penalty for that offense under § 1210. The parties agree that the issue as framed turns solely on the legislative intent underlying the statutory scheme, and thus presents a question of law that we address de novo. State v. Therrien, 2011 VT 120, ¶ 9, 191 Vt. 24, 38 A.3d 1129 (“The interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo.”).

¶ 6. As we have repeatedly stated, in interpreting statutes our goal is to implement the intent of the Legislature. State v. Rafuse, 168 Vt. 631, 632, 726 A.2d 18, 19 (1998) (mem.). Therefore, we first look to the plain and ordinary meaning of the statutory language. See State v. Fletcher, 2010 VT 27, ¶ 10, 187 Vt. 632, 996 A.2d 213 (mem.) (stating that where language of statute is plain and unambiguous, Court will enforce it according to its terms). “We interpret penal statutes strictly, but not so strictly as to defeat the legislative purpose in enacting the law or to produce irrational and absurd results.” In re Jones, 2009 VT 113, ¶ 7, 187 Vt. 1, 989 A.2d 482 (quotation omitted). Although we generally apply a rule of lenity, it does not apply if the statutory language is unambiguous. Cf. State v. Goodhue, 2003 VT 85, ¶ 21, 175 Vt. 457, 833 A.2d 861 (explaining that rule of lenity directs that “any doubts created by ambiguous legislation be resolved in favor of the defendant”).

¶ 7. Here, the language is clear. Under the statutory scheme, a person, who has previously violated § 1201(a) and refuses an officer’s reasonable request to submit to an evidentiary test, commits a crime. 23 V.S.A. § 1201(b). The penalty for that violation of § 1201 increases if a person has a prior violation of § 1201. See id. § 1210(c)-(e) (listing increased penalties for second, third, fourth, and higher offenses). The penalty enhancement is not dependent on which subsection of § 1201 is violated, but simply references a violation of “section 1201.” See id. By referring generally to “section 1201” and not excluding § 1201(b) pertaining specifically to criminal refusal, the statute’s language plainly indicates an intent to apply the increased punishments to successive violations of § 1201 regardless of how the section was violated—either through a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit, a criminal refusal, or through some other manner. Defendants argue that if this were the Legislature’s intent, it should have stated so more explicitly. Further explanation was not ...


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