A District of Columbia Appeals Court in a recent decision highlighted the distinction between a violent crime and a “crime of violence.” The decision also illustrates the reason courts sometimes arrive at what appear to be odd rulings.
Courts, like the rest of us, are constrained to the ordinary meaning of most words. Typically, the definitions contained in a layman’s dictionary would apply, but there are exceptions that courts are bound to follow.
These constraints happen when a particular legislature has specially defined a term. Throughout the statutes of any state, there are sections identified as “Definitions.” The tricky and complex part of statutory definitions is that they are very selective and precise.
A definition may apply to all of the statutes of a state, to a Title, Chapter or other subdivision within the statues, or only to a single specific section.
This is because the legislature can do virtually (within the bounds of the Constitution) anything with regard to how it defines things.
The defendant in the DC case was charged with “assault with significant bodily injury” and received an enhanced charge of “assault with significant bodily injury while armed” because he fired several shots during the assault.
He objected, noting that “assault with significant bodily injury” is not a “crime of violence or dangerous crime” as defined by the DC code. The Court of Appeals agreed with him and vacated the conviction on that charge.
Intention or Oversight?
The Court of Appeals found that section 22-4501 of the DC Code defines what are crimes of violence. That definition, however, is an example of the “nesting boxes” that statutes frequently are. 22-4501 defines “crimes of violence,” but does it by referring to the list in 23-1331(4).
The Court noted that “assault with significant bodily injury” is not included in 23-1331(4). That section includes more than 40 offenses, but does not include 22-404(a)(2).
The Court was unable to determine if this was an oversight on the part of the DC Council (the equivalent of the legislature for the District of Columbia), or intentional. The Court distinguished “aggravated assault,” which has a 10-year sentence, with “assault with significant bodily injury” which carries only a 3-year sentence.