State v. Ward [PDF], issued by the CT Supreme Court yesterday, presents the ubiquitous problem of how to contort the law and the plain meaning of words to ensure that an obviously guilty person stays convicted. Showing their abhorrence for “technicalities”, the court does the astonishing: it re-imagines itself as a lexicographer and unilaterally changes the definition of a simple four-letter word.
The Court was presented with the following factual scenario: a man who works for a company in Massachusetts that does business with a company in Connecticut commits a crime here in CT and then returns to his home in MA. Twenty years later, he is arrested and charged with the commission of that crime.
This brings us to the intersection of the notions of justice and due process. For justice requires that someone who commits a crime like this shouldn’t go unpunished, no matter how long it takes to find and prosecute them. Victimization remains forever and the penalty must be paid. Due process, on the other hand, demands that prosecutions be brought in a timely manner and that individuals not be required to answer for crimes allegedly committed decades earlier due to the inherent problems of missing witnesses, eroded memories and evanescent evidence.
This is why the law provides not only for a statute of limitations in almost all felony cases, but also for an “out clause”: a tolling of that statute under certain restrictive circumstances. For the uninitiated, the statute of limitations states:
(b) No person may be prosecuted for any offense, other than an offense set forth in subsection (a) of this section, for which the punishment is or may be imprisonment in excess of one year, except within five years next after the offense has been committed.
The tolling provision states:
(d) If the person against whom an indictment, information or complaint for any of said offenses is brought has fled from and resided out of this state during the period so limited, it may be brought against such person at any time within such period, during which such person resides in this state, after the commission of the offense.
Clearly, in the matter of Ward, the prosecution was not initiated within 5 years of the commission of the offense. So the only question that remains is whether the limitations period has been tolled. To answer that question we need to ask if Ward “fled” the state.
The verb “to flee” generally invokes the image of a person running away from a negative event or circumstance. And certainly in the criminal context, the word means to run away from the criminal consequences of one’s illegal actions, viz., an investigation or prosecution. The alternative – that every individual who has committed, or thinks he has committed, a crime is required to stay at the scene of that crime and await the inevitable arrival of Constable Fife with open arms is absurd and illogi-I’m sorry, hang on. The Supreme Court wants to say something:
The defendant contends that the trial court improperly determined that he ‘‘fled from and resided out of this state’’; General Statutes (Rev. to 1987) § 54-193 (c); because the state did not present any evidence to show that he was aware of a criminal investigation against him and that he fled in order to avoid prosecution. In response, the state contends that the term fled does not require an intent to avoid arrest or prosecution and that any absence from the jurisdiction, regardless of intent, tolls the statute of limitations. We agree with the state that the plain language of § 54-193 (c) does not require a defendant to leave the state with the intent of avoiding prosecution.
Section 54-193 (c) contains no mention of a requirement that the defendant must have fled for the purpose of avoiding prosecution. Thus, the plain language of § 54-193 (c) supports the conclusion that it does not require that a defendant has fled with the intent to avoid prosecution.
[(c) is now (d)] Oh. I see. So you are saying that all perpetrators must stand vigil at their crime scenes until police arrive to arrest them. Are they required to provide confessions too? Maybe we should make it a law for all criminals to videotape their criminal activity and then mail the aforementioned tape to the nearest police department and turn themselves in within 24 hours.
The fact that the Court agrees with the State that the verb “to flee” as used in the statute has no intent requirement renders the phrase meaningless. They might as well take it out of the statute and simply say “if the person has left the state…” because the existence or possibility of a prosecution is irrelevant.
We note, however, that the common usage of the term fled connotes a meaning that a defendant is running away from something. The term fled as we have ascertained from the dictionary definition means to run away from danger—in the context of § 54-193 (c), we understand this term to mean investigation—and hurry toward a place of security—in the context of § 54-193 (c), we understand this term to mean outside of the jurisdiction. We conclude, therefore, that § 54-193 (c) may toll the statute of limitations when a defendant absents himself from the jurisdiction with reason to believe that an investigation may ensue as the result of his actions.
Okay, hang on. I’m confused. What? You just got done saying that it didn’t matter why the person left the state. Then you use the wishy-washy word “may” in the next paragraph to include that scenario that you just dismissed as irrelevant1. WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING AND WHERE CAN I GET SOME?
Certainly, the defendant herein, as a result of his conduct in the victim’s home, had reason to believe that an investigation would ensue.
Ay, there’s the rub. He’s a Very Bad Guy and he’s Obviously Guilty so he should’ve known that a prosecution would naturally ensue from his actions.
Granted, a man who rapes a woman at knifepoint in her home, deposits his DNA everywhere and just saunters off cannot plausibly claim that he “just went home” and so the court, in an “ends justify the means” sort of way can reasonably be forgiven for calling bullshit on his claim that the statute had run.
But this doesn’t – and shouldn’t – give the Court license to rewrite the meaning of the word in the statute that affects not only Ward, but every other criminal defendant in the state. The court has added a judicial gloss to the meaning of the statute in a way that was completely unnecessary and unfortunately served to eviscerate the protections offered by it, despite its fervent protestations to the contrary:
We reject the defendant’s argument that construing § 54-193 (c) in a manner that does not require an intent to avoid prosecution renders the term fled meaningless. As we have explained previously herein, a defendant must absent himself from the jurisdiction with reason to believe that an investigation will ensue as the result of his actions in order for there to be an application of the tolling provision. There may, indeed, be situations in which a person is traveling through Connecticut and leaves the jurisdiction without reason to believe that an investigation would ensue as a result of his or her actions. For instance, if a motorist was driving on a dark road at night and hit what he reasonably believed to be a bump in the road without stopping, only later to learn that he had left the scene of an accident, he may not have fled the jurisdiction within the meaning of § 54-193 (c). We are confident that our interpretation of the statute does not render the term fled meaningless.
God this court is schizophrenic. From the earlier “may” we now come to a “must”, thereby cementing that a reasonable belief that an investigation will ensue is an integral part of the determination of whether the defendant “fled”. The court then provides the most laughably absurd example of how that requirement would serve to protect an “innocent” person, but still cannot bring itself to say that its own fictional defendant, in its fictional example of the application of the statute that they have just defined “must” get the protection it confers. All it can say is “he may not have fled the jurisdiction”, because logic.
For this judicial determination of “he should have known because, look, he’s really guilty” is a prior judicial determination of guilt before the fact-finder is called upon to make that very same determination. Through what lens are we to make this determination of a “reasonable” belief? From the perspective of the defendant at the time of the commission of the alleged offense? At the time of arrest?
This “interpretation” may not have rendered the term “fled” meaningless, but it sure has made it completely incomprehensible and useless.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, kids: bad cases make bad law, always.
1Unless, of course, you’re using the word “may” in the sense of “is permitted to”. As in “you may serve me my coffee now”. In which case, I suggest the use of the more direct and precise “shall” or “will”.
This is the song I first thought of when I read this case. There are some obvious similarities, but I’ll leave it to you to figure them out: