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Is there a conflict between Washington's Sentencing Reform Act and the Controlled Substances Statute?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jun 09, 2019 | 0 Comments

1. When Statutes Collide

To figure out what a statute means, judges engage in a process known as statutory interpretation. I could describe this process in a very sophisticated way, but here it is a nutshell:

“Are the words clear? Then follow them.” We lawyers call this the “plain language” or “plain meaning” method of statutory interpretation. Judges always start with the words of the statute, and if they're lucky, they don't have to go any further.

But, of course, it's never that clear or easy, and that's when cases wind up in the appellate courts.

That's why State v. Cyr ended up in the Court of Appeals. Cyr is an interesting case. The issue in Cyrwas the proper sentence for the defendant's felony drug conviction. Two statutes were at play in this case, and the words to both were very clear.

Unfortunately, they clearly said opposite things.

2. Is there a conflict between the Sentencing Reform Act and the Controlled Substances Act?

Cyr pleaded guilty to selling heroin for profit under RCW 69.50, the state's controlled substances statute. This was his first conviction for drug dealing but he did have a prior conviction for attempting to possess a controlled substance, also a violation of RCW 69.50.

Under RCW 69.50.410(2)(a), the maximum penalty for selling a controlled substance for profit (a class C felony) is five years in state prison. Seems pretty clear, right? Cyr's maximum possible penalty was five years or 60 months in prison.

Then there's the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), which governs felony sentencing in Washington. The SRA clearly states that a person convicted of a felony must be sentenced according to SRA guidelines, set forth in excruciating detail in RCW 9.94A.

Under the SRA, the trial court calculates a defendant's sentence based on the offender's score and the seriousness level of the current offense, and there is a special sentencing grid for drug offenders.

There is a special sentencing grid for drug offenders under the SRA. Under the SRA's drug sentencing grid, the parties agreed that the standard sentencing range for Cyr's crimes was between 68 and 100 months. Seems pretty clear, right? Cyr's minimum possible sentence was 68 months and the maximum was 100 months.

Now you see the problem. Cyr can't get more than 60 months in prison but he can't get less than 68 months in prison.

So how did the trial judge square this circle? He essentially concluded that RCW 69.50.410(2)(a) was clearer than RCW 9.94A (the SRA), and therefore sentenced Cyr to 60 months in prison.

The State appealed Cyr's sentence.

3. The Court of Appeals says no

So how did the Court of Appeals square thus circle? It didn't, because the appellate judges didn't see a square and a circle. They really just saw a couple of squares.

Why? The Court of Appeals' argument goes something like this (in a very simplified form):

  1. Take a look at RCW 69.50.408 (of the controlled substances statute). It says that a defendant with a prior drug offense under RCW 69.50 can be sentenced up to “twice the term otherwise authorized.”
  2. The normal sentence “authorized” for a first-time drug dealer is 5 years in state prison (see RCW 69.50.410(2)(a)).
  3. But because Cyr had a previous RCW 69.50 conviction, the maximum possible penalty for his charge was now 120 months, not 50 months.
  4. Putting all the statues together, there is no conflict between the SRA and the Controlled Substances Act because any number between 68 and 100 is within 120. It's just simple math.
  5. Send the case back downstairs to the trial court level. The trial judge is free to impose any sentence he feels is appropriate between 68 months and 100 months (i.e. the standard SRA sentence range).

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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