Com v. Cullen-Doyle: Elementary, dear Watson—First Time Offenders are Eligible for RRRI
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court holds in Com v. Cullen-Doyle that the Recidivism Risk Reduction Inventive Act’s (RRRI) eligibility requirements were not meant to exclude a first-time violent offender pleading guilty to first-degree burglary.
The RRRI offers reduced prison times in exchange for participation in certain programs. One criterion of eligibility is that the offender must lack a “history of present or past violent behavior.” Mr. Cullen-Doyle pled guilty to First-Degree Felony Burglary, and asked to be sentenced under RRRI. The trial court denied his eligibility on the basis that his current guilty plea demonstrated present violent behavior.
Majority by Saylor: Ambiguous statute was intended to offer incentives to first-time offenders
Chief Justice Saylor, speaking for the 4-3 majority, holds that the term “history of present . . . violent behavior” is ambiguous. The General Assembly did not mean to include a first-time conviction for which the defendant is being sentenced in determining eligibility.
The majority offers three basic rationales for this conclusion. First, the legislature intended to offer greater incentives to avoid recidivism to first-time offenders than repeat offenders. Thus, when a first-time offender presents, it makes sense that RRRI should be available to him. Second, the inclusion of certain disqualifying crimes, and the exclusion of others, demonstrates the legislature’s intent in this regard. The statute explicitily disqualifies defendants guilty of certain crimes; the legislature’s failure to include burglary was intentional, and should be treated as such. Third, the rule of lenity bolsters this conclusion.
The rule of lenity is the concept that a defendant should get the benefit of the doubt in cases of criminal statutory construction. The rule of lenity applies not only to substantive criminal statutes, but also to statutes affected penalization, such as the present case. Thus, where the statute is capable of two different readings, the defendant should get the benefit of the doubt. This is the criminal equivalent of the contra proferentem doctrine in contract law, or the “your brother cuts the last piece, you choose the bigger one” rule familiar to those of us with siblings.
Dissent by Todd: History of Present . . . violent behavior” unambiguously includes all instances of violent behavior
Justice Todd dissents, joined by Justices Dougherty and Wecht, arguing that the statute is written to unambiguously include all violent behavior—past and present. Justice Todd rebukes the majority for failing to offer any alternative reading of the statute which would make the present violent conviction irrelevant, and concludes the General Assembly’s goal was to exclude violent offenders from eligibility for RRRI.
Conclusion: Narrow ruling, but is the Rule of Lenity expanded?
This case is a fairly narrow ruling. The Court hedges its ruling at key points, emphasizing that “under these circumstances,” RRRI sentencing should be available to a defendant. Though this ruling will certainly affect some defendants, the Court leaves open a trial court’s discretion to determine the appropriate sentence.
However, the Court’s invocation of the Rule of Lenity is important, particularly because this case is on the fringe of where the Rule of Lenity is typically invoked. I don’t mean to suggest the Court is wrong—I think they’re right that Lenity is implicated—but this bold application of the Rule invites its application even in situations where the Commonwealth’s grace is implicated. To put it differently, if the Rule of Lenity brings a defendant under an alternative, more merciful sentencing scheme, does it also offer a defendant hope to get on ARD where he is on the edge? Can it be invoked to justify treatment court? This ruling will certainly be a strong citation in arguments for defendants to be admitted to alternative punishment programs in the future.