Sometimes when lawyers are trying to make sense of the criminal law two different laws may appear to contradict themselves.
What should happen in those situations?
Then rule of lenity is applied. So what is the rule of lenity?
Rule Of Lenity
The rule of lenity is:
Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
The Illinois Supreme Court has stated, “under the rule of lenity, we adopt the more lenient interpretation of a criminal statute when, after consulting traditional canons of statutory construction, we are left with an ambiguous statute.” People v. Gaytan, 2015 IL 116223, ¶ 39, 32 N.E.3d 641.
Example Of The Rule Of Lenity
Consider the case of People v. Rowell, 2020 IL App (4th) 190231 (April). Episode 766 (Duration 5:32) as an example of where the rule lenity was applied.
Defendant was challenging the state’s attempt to sentence her to 180 days i jail. The state said they were merely section 11-501(c)(3) of the Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/11-501(c)(3)) which required her to serve a minimum of 180 days’ imprisonment.
Defendant argued the plain language of the statute is permissive rather than mandatory, noting section 11-501(c)(3) lacks words like “mandatory” or “shall” with regard to the six months of imprisonment, which are included elsewhere in section 11-501.
The court had to determine whether the legislature intended section 11-501(c)(3) to require a trial court to impose a minimum of six months’ imprisonment as part of defendant’s sentence.
The Statute At Issue
625 ILCS 5/11-501(c)(3)
At issue in this case was section 11-501(c)(3) of the Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/11- 501(c)(3)), which states:
Problems With The Statue
The defense pointed out that the statute did not make use of the words “mandatory” or shall which are the understood terms used to document a required provision.
In different sections of 11-501 the law makers in fact did use the term “mandatory” or “shall” to explicitly say when something is required rather than merely be discreationary.
Finally, the defense could point to more serious DUI charges that don’t require 180 days in jail.
The Prosecution Said
The State noted that defendant already faced the possibility of being sentenced to 364 days in jail, for a Class A misdemeanor conviction.
Thus, the phrase “is subject to 6 months of imprisonment” would be entirely superfluous unless it is interpreted to require 6 months of incarceration.
The court finally pointed to the rule of lenity to rule that the 180 days of jail were not necessarily required.
The court said section 11-501(c)(3) should not be construed to impose a mandatory minimum period of 6 months’ imprisonment. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.