Sunday, January 24, 2016

Case o' The Week: Interpreting Clarity - James and the Rule of Acerbity

Hon. Judge Alex Kozinski

“This rule of acerbity, i.e., the rule of lenity stood on its head, is not how the criminal law is supposed to work.”
  United States v. James, 2016 WL 158559, *8 (9th Cir. Jan. 14, 2016), decision available here. (Kozinski, J., dissenting).

Players: Decision by Judge Tallman, joined by Sr. DJ Piersol. Dissent by Judge Kozinski.  Hard-fought appeal by D. Az. AFPD Keith Hilzendeger.

Facts: Twenty-eight year old T.C. was severely disabled by cerebral palsy. Id. at *1. She was largely nonverbal, and communicated displeasure with grunts or nodding her head. Id. T.C.’s legal uncle, James, was discovered having sex with her (while inside the boundaries of a reservation). Id. at *2. 

James was charged with aggravated forcible sexual assault under 18 U.S.C. § 2242(2)(B) – which prohibits sex with a victim who has the mental capacity to consent, but is “physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in, that sexual act.” Id. at *1. 

The jury returned a guilty verdict, and the district court then granted James’s Rule 29 motion. Id. at *2. The government appealed.

Issue(s): “This case turns on the breadth of the ‘physically incapable’ standard in § 2242(2)(B) for punishing a sexual act with an individual with the physical incapacity to decline participation in or communicate unwillingness to engage in the act.” Id. at *3.

Held: “We hold that the district court erred in granting that acquittal, although we acknowledge that determining what constitutes physical incapacity under § 2242(2)(B) is a difficult issue of first impression in our circuit. Applying the familiar standard under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 320, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), we hold, contrary to the district court's decision, that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's determination by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that James violated the statute under which he was found guilty.” Id. at *1. 

After surveying the dearth of case law, we find the cases more persuasive which punish conduct under the broader ‘physically incapable’ standard rather than the narrower ‘physically helpless’ standard because it will allow more cases to be submitted to the good judgment of a jury.Id. at *5.

Of Note: Judge Kozinksi pens a doozy of a dissent. “I am puzzled and confused by Part III of the opinion . . .  The whole enterprise seems misguided because the statute is clear and thus not reasonably susceptible to conflicting interpretations.” Id. at *7 (Kozinski, J., dissenting). “I . . . disagree with the methodology employed by the majority in seeking to pump up the statute beyond its ordinary meaning . . . . This rule of acerbity, i.e., the rule of lenity stood on its head, is not how the criminal law is supposed to work.” Id. at *8.

Judge Kozinski reviews the district court’s compelling recitation of facts showing that T.C. actually had the ability to communicate unwillingness – the gravamen of the statute charged. Id. at *8-*11. (District Judge Neil Wake, by the way, was the jurist who granted the Rule 29 motion). 

The dissent is well worth the read, with a dispassionate analysis of the statute’s language, and frank concern for the autonomy of the physically disabled.

How to Use: The majority chides the district court for considering state decisions while interpreting a federal statute. Id. at *4. Keep those James passages handy when the government tries to incorporate (bad) state law to interpret the meaning of federal criminal statutes.
For Further Reading: Whither thou goest, beloved Rule of Lenity? Judge Kozinski argues the majority flips the rule upside down – taking a clear statute, exploring interpretations, and then expanding the definition in the statute against the defense. 

For an equally candid assessment of the decline of the Rule of Lenity (with a frank contrast to the rise of qualified immunity), see Matt Kaiser, Another Reason It’s Better to be A Cop Than Accused of a Crime, available here.

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at


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