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In re Prosecution of Settles

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

October 24, 2019

In re Prosecution of Nicco Settles.

          Argued September 18, 2019

          On Certification from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD-3451-19) (Hon. Patricia A. Broderick, Trial Judge)

          Mitchell Schwartz for defendant Settles.

          Anne Y. Park, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Jessie K. Liu, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman and Jeffrey A. Wojcik, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for the United States.

          John D. Martorana, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Loren L. AliKhan, Solicitor General, and Rosalyn Calbert Groce, Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief for the District of Columbia.

          Before Easterly and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Okun, Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. [*]

          McLeese, Associate Judge

         The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia charged defendant Nicco Settles with violating a D.C. Code provision prohibiting unauthorized disposal of solid waste. D.C. Code § 8-902(a) (2013 Repl.). Mr. Settles argues that he can be prosecuted for that offense only by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) on behalf of the District of Columbia. The United States and the District of Columbia both take the position that the offense is properly prosecuted by the United States. The trial court properly certified that issue to this court. D.C. Code § 23-101(f) (2012 Repl.). This court must "hear and determine the question in a summary way." Id. We conclude that the offense is properly prosecuted by the District of Columbia.

         I. Background

         For over a hundred years, the authority to conduct criminal prosecutions in the District of Columbia has been divided between the United States and the local government of the District of Columbia. In re Crawley, 978 A.2d 608, 610 (D.C. 2009) (citing An Act To establish a code of law for the District of Columbia, ch. 854, § 932, 31 Stat. 1189, 1340-41 (1901)). The boundaries of that division are established by D.C. Code § 23-101. Id. That section has a number of provisions allocating prosecutorial authority between the United States and the District of Columbia. Id. This case requires us to focus primarily on one: a provision that grants the District of Columbia authority to prosecute violations of "police or municipal ordinances or regulations." D.C. Code § 23-101(a).

         The provision under which Mr. Settles has been charged, D.C. Code § 8-902(a), was originally enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia in 1994. Illegal Dumping Enforcement Act of 1994, D.C. Law 10-117, § 3, 41 D.C. Reg. 524, 525 (1994). In its current form, § 8-902(a) reads as follows:

It shall be unlawful for any person to dispose or cause or permit the disposal of solid waste, hazardous waste, or medical waste in or upon any street, lot, park, public place, or any other public or private area, whether or not for a commercial purpose, unless the site is authorized for the disposal of solid waste, hazardous waste[, ] or medical waste by the Mayor.

         Violations of § 8-902 for a commercial purpose or involving knowing disposal of hazardous or medical waste are felonies carrying a maximum penalty of a fine of $40, 000 and imprisonment for five years. D.C. Code § 8-902(b)(2)-(4). All of the participants in this case agree that such felony prosecutions must be brought by the United States. See, e.g., In re Crawley, 978 A.2d at 614 (discussing statement in legislative history of Congress's 1970 amendments to D.C. Code § 23-101 that "the United States Attorney would continue to prosecute all felonies and the more serious misdemeanors") (internal quotation marks omitted).

          Mr. Settles has not been charged with committing the offense for a commercial purpose or with knowingly disposing hazardous or medical waste, however, and it appears to be undisputed that this would be Mr. Settles's first violation of § 8-902. The offense charged in this case therefore is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of a fine of $5, 000 and imprisonment for ninety days. D.C. Code § 8-902(b)(2). Our holding in this case is limited to such violations.

         II. Discussion

         Whether this misdemeanor prosecution is for a violation of a police or municipal ordinance or regulation within the meaning of § 23-101(a) is a question of statutory interpretation. We decide that question de novo. Williams v. Kennedy, 211 A.3d 1108, 1110 (D.C. 2019). "The first step in construing a statute is to read the language of the statute and construe its words according to their ordinary sense and plain meaning." Chase Plaza Condo. Ass'n v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 98 A.3d 166, 172 (D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). We interpret statutory language in light of the historical context in which the statute was enacted. See, e.g., Perrin v. United States, 444 U.S. 37, 42 (1979) (in interpreting statutory term, Court looks to meaning of term at time statute was enacted). "We also consider statutory context and structure, evident legislative purpose, and the potential consequences of adopting a given interpretation." Williams, 211 A.3d at 1110. "We may also look to the legislative history to ensure that our interpretation is consistent with legislative intent." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In interpreting a statute, we are bound by the holdings of our prior decisions interpreting the statute. Doe by Fein v. District of Columbia, 697 A.2d 23, 30-31 (D.C. 1997).

         A. Ordinary Meaning

         We turn first to the ordinary meaning of the phrase "police or municipal ordinances or regulations." To a modern ear, "police" most immediately suggests law-enforcement officers. See, e.g., Black's Law Dictionary 1344 (10th ed. 2004) (defining "police" to mean "1. The governmental department charged with the preservation of public order, the promotion of public safety, and the prevention and detection of crime. 2. The officers or members of this department."). "Police" can have a far broader scope, however. For example, in phrases such as "police power" it can refer to "[t]he inherent and plenary power of a sovereign to make all laws necessary and proper to preserve the public security, order, health, morality, and justice." See, e.g., id. at 1345. "Municipal" is generally understood to mean "[o]f, relating to, or involving a city, town, or local government unit." See, e.g., id. at 1175. "Ordinance" is defined as "[a]n authoritative law or decree; specif., a municipal regulation, esp. one that forbids or restricts an activity. • Municipal governments can pass ordinances on matters that the state government allows to be regulated at the local level." See, e.g., id. at 1273. Finally, "regulation" nowadays naturally brings to mind rules promulgated by administrative agencies. See, e.g., id. at 1475 (defining "regulation" to mean, inter alia, "[a]n official rule or order, having legal force, usu. issued by an administrative agency"). Nevertheless, the term is in some contexts understood to include legislative enactments. See, e.g., D.C. Code ยง 47-802(6) (2015 Repl.) (defining ...


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