In Indiana, all crimes are statutory. Indiana’s criminal statutes are codified in Title 35 of the Indiana Code, titled “Criminal Law and procedure.” Conduct by a person, however reprehensible, is not a crime, and punishable, unless the Indiana Legislature has exercised its authority to define it as a crime.
Because crimes are punishable by a loss of constitutionally protected freedom (i.e. jail and probation), a person must have notice that his or her behavior is criminal. Crimes must be written and published for the general public so that any person has effective notice of what constitutes criminal activity.
Each word or phrase that the Indiana Legislature uses in defining what behavior are criminal must be given meaning by the court when interpreting that a person’s behavior fits within the construct of the crime. Courts must interpret the meaning of the statute to ensure that defendant’s behavior fits within that framework; otherwise, they did not commit a crime. This is an important cornerstone of the judicial process, because a person should not lose freedoms if he did not commit a crime as the Legislature deemed to define certain behavior criminal.
When courts are charged with the task of matching the behavior of a person with a crime, there is a special rule that applies if the answer is not clear. The Rule of Lenity is a legal rule of statutory interpretation which means that any ambiguities in the law (there is concern or question about what type of behavior the Legislature intended to make criminal), it should be construed against the state.
For example, if the law says “you can’t eat fruit on Tuesday,” and a person eats a tomato on Tuesday, there could be a question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable; therefore the person would not have known whether he or she committed a crime by eating a tomato on Tuesday. Under the Rule of Lenity, “fruit” would be a ambiguous word, unclear, as it applies to a tomato, and because the statute does not define the “fruits” that a person cannot eat on Tuesday (i.e. Apples, Bananas, Oranges) the ambiguity must be construed against the State, such that a person could not be punished for eating a tomato if there is logical debate that a tomato is considered a vegetable.
Courts cannot rely on statutory interpretation, and reading into what the statute deems criminal by vagueness and ambiguities, as criminal statutes cannot be enlarged by construction, implication, or intendment beyond the fair meaning of the language used. Thus, even though a behavior may fall within the spirit of a statute, it will not constitute a crime unless it is also within the words of the statue.
If you find yourself charged or convicted of a crime, and there is a reasonable likelihood or debate that the behavior does not fall within the language and meaning of the statute, it is important to raise the issue in trial court, and/or appeal the conviction to the court of appeals, as there are many consequences to being criminally convicted when you did not commit a crime within the meaning the Legislature intended.
We hope that you have found this information to be helpful in understanding criminal statutes. This is not intended to be legal advice. If you have questions or concerns about your specific case, CIYOU & DIXON, P.C. can help evaluate your specific case. This blog post was written by Attorney, Lori B. Schmeltzer.