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Law Offices of

Patrick F. Lauer, Jr. LLC

Pennsylvania Criminal Defense

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  4.  » What Can Go Wrong When Laws Are Confusingly Written

When you are facing any sort of criminal charges, the letter of the law matters as much as the spirit of the law. And when you are facing particularly serious charges, it is in your best interests to question laws that are confusingly and unclearly worded.

This is exactly what one Pennsylvania man recently tried to do in his appeal to the state Supreme Court. Unfortunately for him, the high Court did not agree with his legal team’s interpretation of the statute.

For some background on his charges, the man was accused of burning down the home of a Pittsburgh couple who were witnesses to a homicide allegedly committed by the man’s cousin. He was charged with arson and attempted homicide under a statute related to retaliation against a witness.

The statutory language was originally written in 1980. In 2000, it was amended in an attempt to clarify that it also applied to retaliation against witnesses in civil matters, not just criminal matters. But when reading the amended language, one could reasonably argue that, far from clarifying the statute, it makes it more confusing. The amended language seems to suggest that the statute ONLY applies in civil cases, not criminal matters. This was the argument that the man’s legal team made in appealing his lengthy prison sentence.

The state Supreme Court rejected that argument in a written opinion that might slow down even the most dedicated English teacher. The opinion mentions syntax (word order), indefinite articles, parallel structure, qualifiers and whether or not nouns were intended to be placed in a series.

To be sure, this appellate strategy was a longshot from the beginning. But it nonetheless raises an important point about criminal law (and civil law, for that matter). To be maximally effective, laws should be written in clear, unambiguous language that is easy for the average person to understand. There is no reason that laws need to be written in lengthy run-on sentences that obscure their meaning. When they are confusing or open to interpretation, the benefit of the doubt should be given to defendants, not the state.

If you are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney willing to use every available resource to give you the best possible defense. To learn more about how our firm can help you, contact our office for an initial consultation.