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Hargrove v. District of Columbia

September 30, 2010

ISAAC HARGROVE AND JUANITA HANDON, APPELLANTS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Criminal Division, (Hon. John H. Bayly, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

Argued October 8, 2009

Before REID, GLICKMAN, and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.

Appellants are school officials who appeal their convictions of having violated the mandatory reporting statute, D.C. Code § 4-1321.02 (a) (2001 & Supp. 2010), by failing to report suspected child abuse after a student's parents complained to them that their daughter had been molested at school by other students. Appellants contend that the statute did not require them to report the incident because it did not involve child abuse or neglect on the part of a parent or other caretaker. We agree and, accordingly, we vacate appellants' convictions.

I.

Appellants, Isaac Hargrove and Juanita Handon, were the principal and vice-principal of Nation House School, a private school in the District of Columbia. On the evening of January 14, 2004, the parents of I.S., a preschool student at Nation House, complained to appellants that four of I.S.'s classmates had molested her in a school bathroom the previous day. By I.S.'s account, which her parents related to appellants, the other preschoolers -- three boys and a girl -- had put their fingers in her vagina. Earlier that day, I.S.'s parents had taken her to the hospital, and the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had been notified.

Appellants questioned the accused preschool students and their parents about I.S.'s claims and came to believe that her allegations were not credible. Neither appellant made a report on I.S.'s alleged abuse to the CFSA or MPD.

At MPD, the case was assigned to Detective James Goldring. On February 2, the detective visited the school and met with appellants as part of his investigation. He inquired of appellant Hargrove whether the school would provide him with its internal incident report. Hargrove, who had begun preparing that report the night I.S.'s parents lodged their complaint but had not yet finished it, told Detective Goldring he "had no idea" it had to be submitted to MPD or CFSA. When the detective returned to the school two days later, Hargrove gave him his completed written report on the matter.

The District of Columbia subsequently charged appellants with having violated the mandatory reporting statute, D.C. Code § 4-1321.02 (a). In pertinent part, that statute requires a school official to make an immediate report to either the MPD or the CFSA*fn1 if he or she "knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child known to him or her in his or her professional or official capacity has been or is in immediate danger of being a mentally or physically abused or neglected child, as defined in [D.C. Code] § 16-2301 (9)."*fn2 The referenced statutory provision in Title 16 is part of the subchapter governing neglect and delinquency proceedings in Family Court. It defines the term "neglected child" to mean a child who has been (or is in danger of being) abused or neglected in any of several specified ways by his or her "parent, guardian, or custodian."

At their bench trial, appellants moved for a judgment of acquittal. They argued that § 4-1321.02 (a) did not require them to report the alleged abuse of I.S. by her classmates because it did not involve parental or other caretaker malfeasance and she therefore was not a "neglected child" within the meaning of § 16-2301 (9). The trial judge disagreed with that interpretation of the mandatory reporting statute and found each appellant guilty of the misdemeanor offense.*fn3

II.

No abuse or neglect on the part of I.S.'s parents (her caretakers) was suspected or involved in this case. That much is undisputed. We are presented with a pure question of law, the interpretation of the mandatory reporting statute, subject to de novo review.*fn4 At issue is the meaning of the language in D.C. Code § 4-1321.02 (a) describing the child whose maltreatment must be reported: "a mentally or physically abused or neglected child, as defined in § 16-2301 (9)." The parties disagree over how the two parts of this description relate to each other. Appellants argue that the phrase "as defined in § 16-2301 (9)" modifies the preceding phrase, "a mentally or physically abused or neglected child," in its entirety, and hence that the statute requires a report only in cases of abuse or neglect involving caretaker malfeasance. The District argues that the reference to § 16-2301 (9) defines only the term "neglected child" in the first phrase, and that a child may be "abused" within the meaning of that phrase even if no caretaker malfeasance is implicated. We conclude that appellants' reading of the statute is the correct one.

We construe statutes in accordance with "[o]rdinary grammatical and syntactical usage,"*fn5 and if the "plain meaning" of statutory language "is clear and unambiguous and will not produce an absurd result, we will look no further."*fn6 The phrase "a mentally or physically abused or neglected child" contains a single noun ("child") modified by adjectives, and thus constitutes a single noun-adjective compound. The following phrase, "as defined in § 16-2301 (9)," set off from the first by a comma, functions as an adjectival modification of the "child" described by the first phrase -- it equates that child to another noun-adjective compound, the "neglected child" defined by § 16-2301 (9). Syntactically, therefore, the second phrase qualifies the first phrase in its entirety, not merely the term "neglected child." Appellants' reading of the reporting statute is the grammatically correct one.

That statutory reading comports with the rule of the last antecedent, pursuant to which qualifying words and phrases are assumed to refer solely to "the last word, phrase, or clause that can be made an antecedent without impairing the meaning of the sentence."*fn7 Because the phrase "mentally or physically abused or neglected child" is a single noun-adjective compound, it contains only one antecedent to the adjectival phrase that follows it. Indeed, as appellants point out, if the words "neglected child, as defined in ยง 16-2301 (9)" were removed from the reporting ...


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