Monday, May 29, 2006

Against Dictionaries: The Exceptional Case

State v. Werdell, 2006 WL 1429161 (Ore. May 25, 2006) (case about a lawyer who is charged with hindering prosecution; defendant attorney challenges the state appeals court’s use of the dictionary definition of the words “discovery” and “apprehension” instead of the actual words in the statute. The Oregon Supreme Court agreed this time; statutory definitions trump the dictionary.

Deadbeat Dads and the Dictionaries that Punish Them

K.T.P. v. Atchison, 2006 WL 1410142 (Ind. App. May 24, 2006) (case about whether a father owed money for expenses, reasonable and necessary, of the mother’s pregnancy and childbirth.)

Indiana Code § 31-14-17-1 states the following: "The court shall order the father to pay at least fifty percent (50%) of the reasonable and necessary expenses of the mother's pregnancy and childbirth, including the cost of: (1) prenatal care; (2) delivery; (3) hospitalization; and (4) postnatal care." As K.T.P.'s disputed medical expenses arose four weeks following his reportedly "normal" birth, the State's position requires that we include them as "postnatal care" under Indiana Code § 31-14-17-1. As stated earlier, "postnatal" is defined as "occurring or being after birth; specif: of or relating to an infant immediately after birth." MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY, supra. Under the plain language of the statute, "postnatal care," which refers to the care of an infant immediately following birth, would not apply to the subsequent care of a child who is re-hospitalized thirty-four days following a normal delivery.

FN7. "Parturition" is defined as "the action or process of giving birth to offspring." MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 904 (11th ed.2004).

- FN9. "Postpartum" is defined as "occurring in or being the period following parturition." "Postnatal" is defined as "occurring or being after birth; specif: of or relating to an infant immediately after birth." MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 970 (11th ed.2004).

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Dictionary Knows How Much Privacy You Should Expect

The case is State v. Nelson, 2006 WL 1420832 (Wis. App. May 25, 2006). The age-old constitutional question is whether a defendant has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" that was violated by overzealous law enforcement officers. (This is kind of funny, since they try to make it look like they’re relying on the common law by citing to a case to fall back a dictionary)...
The phrase "reasonable expectation of privacy" is not defined in Wis. Stat. § 942.09, nor are the individual words. However, the words "expectation of privacy" have a common meaning that can be ascertained with reference to a standard dictionary. See State v. Sample, 215 Wis.2d 487, 499-500, 573 N.W.2d 187 (1998) (we may consult a standard dictionary to determine the common meaning of words). The applicable common meaning of "privacy" is: "1.a. the quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others." American Heritage College Dictionary 1089 (3d ed.1993). The applicable common meaning of "expectation" is "7: assumption." Webster's Third International Dictionary, Unabridged 799 (1993). Thus, according to common usage "expectation of privacy" means an assumption that one is secluded from the presence or view of others...
County of Jefferson v. Renz, 222 Wis.2d 424, 435-36, 588 N.W.2d 267 (Ct.App.1998), rev'd on appeal on other grounds at 231 Wis.2d 293, 603 N.W.2d 541 (1999), we consulted a dictionary to determine the meaning of "excessive" in the prohibition against "excessive noise" in Wis. Stat. § 347.39(1) (1995-96). We determined "excessive" meant "unreasonable," and we concluded that the concept of reasonableness in the context of the statute was sufficiently definite to avoid vagueness. Renz, 222 Wis.2d at 435-36.

Apple Computers and the Court Definition of "Post"

This is a fun case in the study of courts relying on dictionaries (rather than legal precedent) to decide cases.
O'Grady v. Superior Court, 2006 WL 1452685 (Cal. App. 6 Dist. May 26, 2006), is about an online magazine that posted material about Apple computers, software, etc. The case comes out of Apple’s claim that a publisher wrote about a secret, planned product that hadn’t been released yet. The holding turned in part on the definition of "post," as in "post it online."

In the world of digital communications, to "post" is "[t]o send (a message or data) to a mailing list, newsgroup, or other online forum on which it will be displayed; to display or make available online." (a footnote cites to the Oxford English Dictionary,, as authority)

The court goes on to use the Oxford English Dictionary (online version, no less) to settle the definition of "magazine," "e-zine," and "periodical."

More Dictionary Cases: "Replace" and "Straight"

As part of an ongoing academic project studying the almost daily reliance on commonplace dictionaries as the basis for a holding in lower court rulings, here are two more recent examples:
State v. Warholic, 2006 WL 1389109 (Conn., May 30, 2006) (Main issue in the case centered around the prosecutor’s diction in his questioning of a child witness, and in his closing and opening statements; prosecutor used suggestive language - like the word "straight" - to bolster a child witness’ credibility). Quotation (from Footnote 22):
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (2d Ed.1987) defines "straight" to include "free from using narcotics." In addition, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) defines "straight" as "[n]ot using or under the influence of drugs."
Monette-Shaw v. San Francisco Bd. of Supervisors, 2006 WL 1446492 (Cal. App. 1 Dist. May 26, 2006) (platintiff wanted city to use settlement revenues to "fix or replace" a hospital that had been damaged by an earthquake in 1989). I thought this was interesting because the court rejects the lawyer's use of dictionary definitions (apparently in his brief) but includes the citation to show that the result would not have changed. One question that has come up in this research project is whether citations to dictionaries in a brief (which, presumably, involves pitching one's case as a matter of defining the statutory terms) is advantageous as a general rule.
Quote (from footnote 14):
Because the broad scope of the Project is clear from the text of the proposition and ordinance, it is not necessary or appropriate to resort to dictionary definitions of "replace." Were we to do so as invited by petitioner, however, the result would be the same. "Replace" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.2000) page 1479, column 2, to mean "1. To put back into a former position or place. 2. To take or fill the place of. 3. To be or provide a substitute for. 4. To pay back or return; refund." This definition certainly includes building a new, but different, health care facility in the place of the old Laguna Honda. That new facility will take the place of and provide a substitute for the old facility even if it is not a bed-for-bed replica.

High Court Doesn't Have Enough To Do...

In contrast to the United States Supreme Court, justices on the highest court of appeals in New Zealand are apparently frustrated by the dearth of cases for them to review. Click on the title above or here for the article.