Saturday, March 19, 2016

State ex rel. Richardson v. Green

Opinion handed down July 21, 2015
Welch, a man who pled guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter for killing two people while driving in an intoxicated condition applied for a sentence reduction pursuant to Missouri Revised Statutes Section 558.046.[1]  That statute permits judges to reduce the length of sentence for persons convicted of alcohol- or drug-related crimes, provided that those crimes do not involve violence.[2]  The trial court granted Welch a reduced sentence, and the prosecution filed a writ of prohibition in the Supreme Court of Missouri.[3]
The Supreme Court of Missouri made the writ of prohibition absolute, holding that the crime of involuntary manslaughter by driving while intoxicated and killing another person with criminal negligence is one that certainly “involves violence.”[4]  The court specifically found that there need not be a mens rea element in order for a crime to qualify as “involving violence” pursuant to Section 558.046.[5]

I.  Facts and Holding
Larry Welch killed two people and permanently injured two others in a collision he caused while driving in an intoxicated condition.[6]  Welch pled guilty to two counts of first degree involuntary manslaughter and two counts of second-degree assault.[7]  Welch was sentenced to two concurrent fifteen-year sentences for the manslaughter counts and two concurrent five-year sentences for the assault counts, with the assault sentences to be served consecutively to the manslaughter sentences.[8]
Welch moved for a sentence reduction pursuant to Section 558.046, and the trial court judge reduced the involuntary manslaughter sentences to two concurrent seven-year sentences.[9]  The prosecutor filed a writ of prohibition, arguing that Welch was not eligible to a sentence reduction under Section 558.046 because Welch was convicted of a crime involving violence.[10]
The Supreme Court of Missouri held that Welch was not eligible for a sentence reduction because the crime for which he was convicted, involuntary manslaughter via drunk driving, was a crime of violence.[11]  The court ruled that it was inconsequential whether or not the violent crime was committed intentionally, rejecting Welch’s argument that a mental state requirement be read into the statute.[12] 
II.  Legal Background
Section 558.046 authorizes courts to reduce the length of sentence for persons convicted of crimes involving alcohol or illegal drugs, so long as the crime did not involve violence or the threat of violence.[13]  The convicted person must also have completed a detoxification and rehabilitation program and cannot be a prior offender of certain crimes to be eligible for a sentence reduction.[14]  The statute contains no definition for “crimes involving violence.”[15]
The crime of which Welch was convicted, involuntary manslaughter in the first degree, criminalizes persons who, “while in an intoxicated condition[,] operate[] a motor vehicle . . . and, while so operating, acts with criminal negligence to cause the death of any person.”[16] 
III.  Instant Decision
The Supreme Court of Missouri first turned to the dictionary to define the term “crime involving violence.”[17]  The court cited definitions such as “exertion of any physical force so as to injure or abuse,” “intense, turbulent, or furious action, force, or feeling often destructive,” and “abusive or unjust exercise of power.”[18]  The court commented that “violence includes both intentional and unintentional acts.[19] 
The court then differentiated the way the term “violent” was used in Section 558.046 from its use in other criminal statutes.[20]  Unlike its application in other areas of criminal law,[21] Section 558.046 broadened the term “violence” by accompanying it with the term “involve.”[22]  The court reasoned that “involves violence” does not imply any type of intent as an element for “violence,” but only requires that the offense involves violence.[23] 
Finally, the court discussed why none of Welch’s comparisons to federal laws supported an interpretation that the term “involves violence” requires an element of intentionality.[24]
IV.  Comment
The court’s decision makes sense from several standpoints.  First, the court rejected an argument which would have required it to read words into a statute that clearly were not present.  Second, the court did not support the blatant contradiction of labeling a drunk driving fatality as not violent.  Finally, the court maintained the social policy of discouraging drunk driving by ensuring the sentence reduction statute could not be applied to persons who cause harm while driving in an intoxicated condition.
  • Joe Krispin

[1] State ex rel. Richardson v. Green, 465 S.W.3d 60, 62 (Mo. 2015) (en banc.).
[2] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.046(1) (2000).
[3] Richardson, 465 S.W.3d at 62.
[4] Id. at 64.
[5] Id. at 65.
[6] Id. at 62.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at 67.
[12] Id. at 65.
[13] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.046(1) (2000).
[14] Id. at (2)-(3).
[15] Id.
[16] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.024(2) (2000).
[17] Richardson, 465 S.W.3d at 64.  “Absent a statutory definition, words used in statutes are given their plain and ordinary meaning with help, as needed, from the dictionary.”  Balloons Over the Rainbow, Inc. v. Dir. of Revenue, 427 S.W.3d 815, 825 (Mo. 2014) (en banc.).
[18] Richardson, 465 S.W.3d at 64  (citing Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 2554 (3d ed. 1993), American Heritage Dictionary 1921 (4th ed. 2000)).
[19] Richardson, 465 S.W.3d at 64.
[20] Id.
[21] Section 455.010(5) defines “domestic violence” by using the terms of intentional acts, such as “stalking” and “abuse.”  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 455.010 (2000).  Section 632.480(4) defines “sexually violent offense” by listing several crimes that can be committed only intentionally or purposefully, such as rape and sodomy.  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 632.480 (2000).  
[22] Richardson, 465 S.W.3d at 64.
[23] Id. at 65.
[24] Id. at 65-67.