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October 11, 2006

New York: You're Not "Intoxicated" if you Drive Under the Influence of Furniture Polish

This is an interesting case.  People v. Litto, 2006 WL 2820971 (N.Y. Spr. Ct. APp. Div. Oct. 3, 2006).  Defendant inhaled a can of "Dust Off" (I imagine that's furniture polish of some sort) while driving, causing him to veer into oncoming traffic, killing others.  Among other things, he was charged with driving while "intoxicated."  The lower court dismissed that charge, and the state appealled.

A split court affirmed.  The dissent relied on the plain meaning of "intoxicated" and argued that clearly the defendant was; the majority relied on legislative development of the statutes, which showed that a separate statute was adopted to cover driving while under the influence of drugs.

Plain meaning versus context and purpose.  It's an interesting read.

October 11, 2006 | Permalink


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"Plain meaning versus context and purpose."

Arrrrrgh. I hate these false dichotomies. Under a textual approach, of course context is important. See, e.g., Smith v. United States, 508 U.S. 223, 241 (1993) (Scalia, J., dissenting) ("It is…a ‘fundamental principle of statutory construction (and, indeed, of language itself) that the meaning of a word cannot be determined in isolation, but must be drawn from the context in which it is used.'")

Similarly, textualists understand that legislatures do not enact statutes for no reason, and therefore assume that the legislature enacts purposively; ergo, textualists try to give effect to every word in a statute, rather than render statutory language a dead letter.

Perhaps I am arguing "semantics," but then this is a blog amount semantics, and it's mildly annoying to see "plain meaning" approaches confused with "literalism." Purpose, context, history, etc. are all extremely important under a textual approach-- textualists just look at different materials from intentionalists, and endeavor to read statutes to serve the public, rather than give effect to a legislator's subjective intentions.

Posted by: andy | Oct 11, 2006 5:54:01 PM

There's a great new case that I'll post on once I get back home that just came out where a judge makes your points.

I don't want to belabor your comment, but I'm not writing a law review article when I post, and so don't take what I write... literally always! But if you read the case, the dissent felt that the majority were being "literalists" to use your phrase. It's a fun case.

Posted by: David Hricik | Oct 14, 2006 3:59:12 AM

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