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State v Caton

4-5-2012 Washington:

State v Caton
(273 P.3d 980 (2012)

This is a very interesting case of statutory interpretation, and this time the registrant WON! The main reason for posting this is, when trying to fight a failure to register, one MUST always consider changes to the laws and when those changes occurred.

The court begins:
The Lewis County Superior Court found Michael Caton guilty of failure to report as a sex offender under former RCW 9A.44.130 (2008). Caton appealed, arguing among other things that the evidence did not support his conviction. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. State v. Caton, 163 Wn.App. 659, 260 P.3d 946 (2011). Caton filed a petition for review. Because the evidence was insufficient, we grant the petition and reverse the conviction.

Key part of decision:
The information charged Caton with violating the statute by "knowingly and unlawfully ... failing to report in person to the Lewis County Sheriff's office on the required day for the 90 day reporting requirement." CP at 1. The superior court found that Caton failed to report on the date specified by the sheriff and thus determined that he was guilty of violating former RCW 9A.44.130(7) as charged.

But former RCW 9A.44.130(7) did not clearly make it a criminal offense to fail to report on the date specified by the sheriff. The statute at the outset only required offenders to "report, in person, every ninety days to the sheriff of the county where he or she is registered." Although the second sentence stated that "[r]eporting shall be on a day specified by the county sheriff's office," the statute went on to state that an offender who complied "with the ninety-day reporting requirement with no violations for a period of at least five years in the community may petition the superior court to be relieved of the duty to report every ninety days." Former 9A.44.130(7).

The gravamen of the offense is failure to report every 90 days, not failure to report on a specific date. To the extent the statute can be read as making it an offense to not report on the sheriff's specified date, even if the offender reports within the 90-day period, it is ambiguous. It is further ambiguous as to the event triggering the 90-day reporting period. State v. Kintz, 169 Wn.2d at 562 (statute is ambiguous if it remains subject to multiple interpretations after analyzing its plain language). In this circumstance, the rule of lenity requires the statute to be construed in favor of the defendant, absent clear legislative intent to the contrary. Id.

Interpreting the statute in this manner, the State did not prove that Caton failed to report within 90 days of the date of his registration. He reported on June 10, 2009, and again on June 17, 2009, both dates well within 90 days of registration on May 19, 2009. We reverse Caton's conviction.

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