Interpreting Oklahoma criminal laws: the devil, or salvation, can be in the details

If you should ever curl up with your favorite volume of Oklahoma’s criminal statutes, you might find that parts of it can be difficult to read. This is understandable; the laws are frequently written by people who are themselves lawyers, or who have a background of legal education, and it can be easy for such people to write in a way meant for other lawyers to use but not the general public. But if you are accused of a crime here, having someone on your side who can make sense of how the state’s criminal code is written can make the difference between freedom and incarceration.

A good example of how this can happen comes from a recent decision from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which based on defining how the applicable law is written turned back the state’s attempt to prosecute a man for the crime of oral rape (“forcible oral sodomy”).

The matter turned on the fact that the alleged victim of the crime was intoxicated and unconscious at the time of the act. The trial court dismissed the charge; the state appealed. What followed was a review by the appeals court of three criminal statutes covering rape, forcible sodomy and oral rape, with the decision coming down to whether one law’s provision for intoxication could be extended to another law that did not include any intoxication reference.

Oklahoma’s law defining the crime of rape identifies eight circumstances in which it can occur. One of them can be when “…the victim is intoxicated by a narcotic or anesthetic agent, administered by or with the privity of the accused as a means of forcing the victim to submit.” The crime of forcible sodomy, on the other hand, makes no provision for intoxication as an element of the crime; nor does the crime of forcible oral sodomy. The state contended during its appeal of the trial court’s decision to throw out the oral rape charge that intoxication should be a circumstance justifying the application of that law to the defendant; but the appeals court sided with the trial court, stating that “[W]e will not, in order to justify prosecution of a person for an offense, enlarge a statute beyond the fair meaning of its language.”

In other words, the court must read criminal laws as they are written, and not inject its own or the prosecution’s wished-for interpretation of how the law “ought” to be read. This is not the first time that an appeals court in this state has drawn the same conclusion, and the importance of this “fair reading” requirement cannot be understated when it comes to defending yourself against the attempts of prosecutors to stretch the law past what the legislature intended.

The decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals in the above case has led to strong criticism of the existing Oklahoma law defining oral sodomy, and state legislators have vowed to revise the law so that intoxication of the victim can be a consideration. But the decision still demonstrates that knowing all of the exact elements of what constitutes a crime — and just as importantly, what the crime does not include — in essential for criminal defense attorneys to effectively represent their clients. If the facts of the case do not match the all of the necessary elements of the charge, or if as here the state is improperly attempting to change the law by playing fast-and-loose with those elements (such as trying to graft an element of one law into another), these can be critical in either having the charge tossed out before trial, or to a successful defense during trial.