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State v. Coble

Supreme Court of Arkansas

March 17, 2016

STATE OF ARKANSAS, APPELLANT
v.
BILLY GENE COBLE, APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. 35CR-12-366. HONORABLE ROBERT H. WYATT, JUDGE.

         Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Rachel Kemp, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellant.

         JOSEPHINE LINKER HART, Associate Justice. BRILL, C.J., and DANIELSON, J., dissent.

          OPINION

         

Page 371

          JOSEPHINE LINKER HART, Associate Justice

         Appellant, State of Arkansas, brought a criminal charge against appellee, Billy Gene Coble, alleging that Coble had engaged in sexual indecency with a child, in violation of Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-14-110(a)(4)(C) (Repl. 2013). A jury trial was held, and at the close of the State's case, the circuit court directed a verdict in Coble's favor. The State appeals, asking this court to declare error on a question of law. Particularly, the State argues that the circuit court erred in its determination of what is meant by the phrase " another person" in the criminal statute. We accept the appeal and affirm the circuit court's decision.

          Rule 3(b), (c), and (d) of the Arkansas Rule of Appellate Procedure--Criminal, authorizes this court to hear an appeal when the Attorney General, after inspecting the trial record, is satisfied that error has been committed to the prejudice of the State and that the correct and uniform administration of the criminal law requires such review. As a threshold matter, we must consider whether the State has properly brought its appeal pursuant to this rule. This court decides appeals brought by the State in criminal cases only when the issue is narrow in scope, involves the interpretation of law, has widespread ramifications, and involves the correct and uniform administration of the criminal law. State v. Thomas, 2014 Ark. 362, at 3, 439 S.W.3d 690, 692. We dismiss appeals that only raise an issue of the application, not interpretation, of a statutory provision. Id., 439 S.W.3d at 692. The issue before this court is a narrow one of statutory interpretation and does not turn on particular facts. Our decision will have widespread application and is required for the correct and uniform administration of the criminal law. We hold that this is a proper State appeal.

         Given that this is solely a question of the interpretation of the criminal statute, a recitation of the facts presented at trial is unnecessary, and we need only resort to an examination of the statutory language. In pertinent part, Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-14-110(a)(4)(C) provides that " [a] person commits sexual indecency with a child if . . . [w]ith the purpose to arouse or gratify his or her sexual desire or a sexual desire of another person, a person who is eighteen (18) years of age or older causes or coerces a minor to expose his or her sex organs to another person, and the actor is . . . [t]he minor's guardian." (Emphasis added.) We emphasize the phrase, " another person," as it is this phrase that the State asks this court to interpret.

         In directing a verdict in Coble's favor, the circuit court concluded that, as used in the statute, the phrase, " another person," means someone other than the defendant. In essence, in interpreting section 5-14-110(a)(4)(C), the circuit court concluded that a guardian commits the crime only if he or she causes or coerces a minor to expose his or her sex organs--not to the

Page 372

actor (who is the guardian) or the victim--but instead to another person.

         On appeal, the State asserts that the circuit court's interpretation will lead to an absurd result, as the intent of the statute is to protect minors from actors who are guardians of the minors, and this court will not interpret a statute to lead to an absurd result. The State argues that it " flies in the face of logic to read the statute to mean that a person in such a position could escape criminal liability as long as he causes the child to expose himself or herself solely to him (the actor) and not to a third person." The State proposes that a " common-sense" reading of the statute shows that the phrase " causes or coerces a minor to expose his or her sex organs to another person" means to any person other than the victim, and that such a reading does not exclude the actor as " another person."

          On appeal, we consider statutory interpretation de novo. Thomas, 2014 Ark. 362, at 4, 439 S.W.3d 690, 692. In determining the meaning of a statute, the first rule is to construe it just as it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language. First Ark. Bail Bonds, Inc. v. State, 373 Ark. 463, 464-65, 284 S.W.3d 525, 527 (2008). We construe the statute so that no word is left void, superfluous, or insignificant, and meaning and effect are given to every word in the statute, if possible. Id. at 465, 284 S.W.3d at 527. When the language of a statute ...


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