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Lopez-Ramirez v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

October 12, 2017

Gilberto Lopez-Ramirez, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Argued June 27, 2017

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DVM-2363-14) Hon. Neal E. Kravitz, Trial Judge.

          Daniel S. Harana, Public Defender Service, with whom Samia Fain and Alice Wang, Public Defender Service, were on the brief, for appellant.

          Lauren R. Bales, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Elizabeth H. Danello, and Candice C. Wong, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

          Before FlStlHR and Beckwith, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.


          FISHER, Associate Judge

         After a bench trial, appellant Gilberto Lopez-Ramirez was convicted of attempted misdemeanor sexual abuse, [1] but acquitted of three counts of contempt.[2] Appellant argues that he should have received a jury trial because his "total financial exposure" was greater than $4, 000 when taking into account assessments under the Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Act (VVCCA). We affirm the decision of the Superior Court denying appellant's request for a jury trial. We remand for the limited purpose of correcting appellant's sentence.

         I. Background

         VVCCA assessments are mandatory payments "imposed upon each person convicted of or pleading guilty or nolo contendere to the offense in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or any other court in which the offense is charged." D.C. Code § 4-516 (a) (2012 Repl.). A defendant must pay "an assessment of between $50 and $250 for . . . misdemeanor offenses, and an assessment of between $100 and $5, 000 for each felony offense[.]" hi. The assessments are placed in a fund that is used to compensate victims of crime in the District of Columbia. See Parrish v. District of Columbia, 718 A.2d 133, 133-34 (D.C. 1998); see also D.C. Code § 4-515 (2012 Repl.) (Crime Victims Compensation Fund).

         D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(B) (2012 Repl.) allows a defendant to demand a trial by jury if he "is charged with 2 or more offenses which are punishable by a cumulative fine or penalty of more than $4, 000 or a cumulative term of imprisonment of more than 2 years[.]" On the day before trial, appellant moved for a jury trial, arguing that an assessment under the VVCCA should be considered a "fine or penalty" within the meaning of this statutory provision.

         Standing alone, the charge of attempted misdemeanor sexual abuse exposed appellant to paying $750: a $500 fine, plus a $250 VVCCA assessment. See D.C. Code §§ 22-3006, -3018 (2012 Repl.) (setting a maximum fine of $500 for attempted misdemeanor sexual abuse). Appellant was exposed to a potential payment of $3, 750 if convicted of the three contempt counts: $3, 000 in fines, and $750 in VVCCA assessments. See D.C. Code §§ 23-1329 (c), 22-3571.01 (2012 Repl.) (setting a maximum fine of $1, 000 for each contempt violation). Appellant therefore faced total potential payments of $4, 500. Because this amount exceeded the $4, 000 threshold for fines or penalties in D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(B), appellant argued that he was entitled to a jury trial.

         Judge Laura Cordero rejected appellant's argument, ruling that a VVCCA assessment "is not a fine." She cited Gotay v. United States, 805 A.2d 944 (D.C. 2002), in which this court noted that the VVCCA "does not call [these sums] fines; moreover, fines are generally prescribed in the statutes that define particular crimes and establish the penalties for them." Id. at 948 n.9. The Gotay court decided to adhere to the statutory term "assessments" when referring to VVCCA payments. Id. However, the court in Gotay was not presented with the question we consider here whether a VVCCA assessment should count as a "fine or penalty" for purposes of determining the statutory right to a jury trial.

         Because appellant only faced a maximum payment of S3, 500 if VVCCA assessments were not included, Judge Cordero's ruling meant that he could not cross the $4, 000 threshold established in D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(B) to obtain a jury trial. After convicting appellant of attempted misdemeanor sexual abuse, Judge Neal E. Kravitz sentenced him to 180 days' incarceration, with execution of sentence suspended as to all but thirty days; two years of probation; and a $50 payment under the VVCCA. On appeal, Mr. Lopez-Ramirez reiterates his argument that VVCCA assessments should be treated as fines or penalties under D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(B), thus making his case jury-demandable.

         II. Analysis

         We note as an initial matter that our inquiry focuses on the statutory right to a jury trial conferred in the District of Columbia. Appellant has not asserted that his constitutional right to a jury trial has been violated, and such a claim would fail under Supreme Court precedent. See, e.g., Lewis v. United Slates, 518 U.S. 322, 323 (1996) (holding "that no jury trial right exists where a defendant is prosecuted for multiple petty offenses"); United States v. Naehtigal, 507 U.S. 1, 4-6 (1993) (holding that a defendant was "not constitutionally entitled to a jury trial" because he was charged with a "petty offense" even though the penalties for the offense included a maximum fine of $5, 000). The issue presented is entirely a matter of legislative intent: did the Council of the District of Columbia intend that a VVCCA assessment be treated as a fine or penalty for purposes of applying D.C. Code$ 16-705?

         A. Standard of Review

          Our review of questions of statutory interpretation is de novo. Peterson v. United States, 997 A.2d 682, 683 (D.C. 2010). "We begin by looking first to the plain language of the statute to determine if it is clear and unambiguous." Id. at 684 (internal quotation marks omitted). We are mindful, however, that "[statutory interpretation is a holistic endeavor[.]" Tippett v. Daly, 10 A.3d 1123, 1127 (D.C. 2010) (en banc) (quoting Washington Gas Light Co. v. Pub. Sen: Comm'n, 982 A.2d 691, 716 (D.C. 2009)). "When interpreting a statute, the judicial task is to discern, and give effect to, the legislature's intent." //; re C.G.H., 75 A.3d 166, 171 (D.C. 2013) (quoting A.R. v. F.C., 33 A.3d 403, 405 (D.C. 2011)). Indeed, "the primary rule" of statutory construction "is to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent and to give legislative words their natural meaning; should effort be made to broaden the meaning of statutory language by mere inference or surmise or speculation, we might well defeat true legislative intent." Grayson v. AT & T Corp., 15 A.3d 219, 237-38 (D.C. 2011) (en banc) (alterations omitted) (quoting Banks v. United States, 359 A.2d 8, 10 (D.C. 1976)).

         Thus, "[t]he words of a statute are a primary index but not the sole index to legislative intent; the words cannot prevail over strong contrary indications in the legislative history." Id. at 238 (internal quotation marks omitted). "It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme." O 'Rourke v. District of Columbia Police & Firefighters' Ret. & Relief Bd., 46 A.3d 378, 383 (D.C. 2012) (quoting FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120, 133(2000)).

         B. The Text of the Statutes

         We begin by looking at the statutory texts. "Fine" and "penalty" are not defined in D.C. Code § 16-705, but the legislature could not have thought that VVCCA assessments fell within those terms when it first enacted that statute. See, e.g., D.C. Code § 11-715a (1961 ed.) (recodifying the provision that a defendant may demand a jury trial when the "fine or penalty" exceeds certain thresholds). VVCCA assessments were not created until 1982. See 29 D.C. Reg. 983-85 (1982). Appellant nonetheless argues that VVCCA assessments should be considered to be fines or penalties under D.C. Code § 16-705 because, among other reasons, they "place a financial burden on the defendant, " they "are imposed as part of a defendant's sentence, " they have characteristics that seem to fall within dictionary definitions of "fine" and "penalty, " and the "failure to pay them will result in the same treatment as the failure to pay any other fine or penalty."

          It is not obvious from the text of the VVCCA that the Council intended those assessments to fall within the term "fine or penalty, " as used in § 16-705. First, the Council used the word "assessment" in the VVCCA rather than "fine" or "penalty." The Council also specified that VVCCA assessments were to be imposed "[i]n addition to and separate from punishment imposed, " see D.C. Code § 4-516 (a) (2012 Repl.), suggesting that the Council did not consider VVCCA assessments to be punishment in the same way that a "fine or penalty" is. See id. § 16-705 (b)(1)(B) (providing that a defendant may receive a jury trial when he "is charged with 2 or more offenses which are punishable by a cumulative fine or penalty of more than $4, 000" (emphases added)).[3] Further, D.C. Code §4-516 (c) provides that VVCCA assessments "shall be collected as fines." This language would be unnecessary if the Council otherwise equated "assessments" with "fines."[4]

         Nonetheless, given that "fine, " "penalty, " and "assessment" can "seem ambiguous in isolation, " we look to legislative history and to "the remainder of the statutory scheme" to discern the legislature's intent. Ferguson v. United States, 157 A.3d 1282, 1285-86 (D.C. 2017). An examination of legislative history reveals no evidence that the Council intended VVCCA assessments to affect the meaning of the "fine or penalty" language in D.C. Code § 16-705. Such an interpretation would disrupt a statutory scheme that the Council has carefully constructed over decades.

          C. The Impact on Other Statutes

         Adopting appellant's argument would affect much more than the "cumulative fine or penalty" provision invoked by appellant. It would also dramatically alter the application of D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(A), which has provided since 1993[5] that a defendant may demand a jury trial when he "is charged with an offense which is punishable by a fine or penalty of more than $ 1, 000 or by imprisonment for more than 180 days." See 40 D.C. Reg. 796, 799 (1993). In 1994 the Council passed the Misdemeanor Streamlining Act, which reduced the maximum penalties for more than forty crimes to a fine of not more than $ 1, 000 or imprisonment for not more than 180 days, or both, for the express purpose of making those crimes non-jury-demandable. See 41 D.C. Reg. 2608 (1994); D.C. Council, Report on Bill 10-98 at 3-8 (Jan. 26, 1994). In 2013 the Council standardized the maximum fine for 180-day crimes at SI, 000. See D.C. Code § 22-3571.01 (b) (2012 Repl. & Supp. 2014); 60 D.C. Reg. 9834 (2013).

          Thus, a vast number of misdemeanor offenses currently have a maximum fine of $1, 000. Under appellant's interpretation of "fine or penalty, " a mandatory VVCCA assessment would be added to the $1, 000 maximum fine for all of those offenses, suddenly making them all jury-demandable under D.C. Code § 16-705 (b)(1)(A) even when charged in a single-count information.[6] This interpretation would produce a result wholly at odds with the intent of the Misdemeanor Streamlining Act. There is absolutely no evidence that the Council intended this result. Accordingly, even if a VVCCA assessment could be considered a "fine, " "penalty, " or "punishment" for some purposes, we would reject appellant's argument. See, e.g., District of Columbia Office of Tax & Revenue v. Sunbelt Beverage, LLC, 64 A.3d 138, 145 (D.C. 2013) ("[I]t is well established that the literal meaning of a statute will not be followed when it produces absurd results[.]" (internal quotation marks omitted)); Peoples Drug Stores v. District of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 754 (D.C. 1983) (en banc) ("[A] court may refuse to adhere strictly to the plain wording of a statute in order to effectuate the legislative purpose[.]" (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Indeed, adopting appellant's position would suggest that the Misdemeanor Streamlining Act has been misapplied since it was enacted. But nothing in the committee report for the 1997 amendments to the VVCCA suggests that the Council intended the result appellant urges, see D.C. Council, Report on Bill I I-657 (Sept. 26, 1996), and we decline to find it by implication. Cf., e.g., Richardson v. United States,927 A.2d 1137, 1143 (D.C. 2007) (warning that "[r]epeals by implication are not favored" and that [i]n the absence of any express repeal or amendment, a later statute is presumed to be in accord ...

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