Bonner Cnty. v. Cunningham

Decision Date24 April 2014
Docket NumberNo. 40642.,40642.
Citation323 P.3d 1252,156 Idaho 291
CourtIdaho Court of Appeals
Parties BONNER COUNTY, Idaho, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. Michael T. CUNNINGHAM, Jr., Real Party in Interest–Appellant, and Nine Thousand Fifty Dollars U.S. Currency, Defendant.

Valerie P. Thornton, Sandpoint, for appellant.

Louis E. Marshall, III, Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney, Sandpoint, for respondent.


Michael T. Cunningham, Jr. appeals from the district court's decision on intermediate appeal affirming the magistrate's denial of Cunningham's motion for an award of attorney fees pursuant to Idaho Code § 12–117. At issue is whether respondent Bonner County acted under a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute, thus precluding an award under the statute. We reverse the district court's decision and remand for further proceedings in the magistrate court.


On March 30, 2011, Cunningham's home was searched pursuant to a search warrant. Police found small amounts of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The police seized these items along with a lock box that contained $9,050 in cash.

On May 3, 2011, respondent Bonner County filed a complaint seeking civil forfeiture of the cash pursuant to the provisions of Idaho Code § 37–2744. Cunningham filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that Bonner County did not file its complaint within thirty days of the seizure of the cash as required, he contended, by I.C. § 37–2744(c)(3). The magistrate court granted Cunningham's motion and dismissed the case.

Cunningham then filed a motion for an award of attorney fees under I.C. § 12–117, arguing that the County had acted without a reasonable basis in law by filing the complaint late and by opposing his motion to dismiss. Bonner County resisted Cunningham's request for attorney fees, asserting that its defense of his motion to dismiss was not frivolous because the County raised viable, if ultimately unsuccessful, issues of statutory interpretation. The magistrate court concluded that the County's conduct was not unreasonable and denied Cunningham's motion for attorney fees. Cunningham appealed the denial of attorney fees to the district court, which affirmed the magistrate court's decision. This appeal followed. The sole issue is whether Cunningham is entitled to an award of attorney fees for the proceedings in the magistrate court and on this appeal.


When the district court renders an opinion in its intermediate appellate capacity, we directly review the district court's opinion. Pelayo v. Pelayo, 154 Idaho 855, 858–59, 303 P.3d 214, 217–18 (2013) ; Hausladen v. Knoche, 149 Idaho 449, 452, 235 P.3d 399, 402, (2010).1 The interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review. Ada Cnty. Prosecuting Attorney v. 2007 Legendary Motorcycle, 154 Idaho 351, 353, 298 P.3d 245, 247 (2013) ; Carrier v. Lake Pend Oreille Sch. Dist., 142 Idaho 804, 807, 134 P.3d 655, 658 (2006). A trial court's determination whether to award fees under Section 12–117 is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. City of Osburn v. Randel, 152 Idaho 906, 908, 277 P.3d 353, 355 (2012) ; Halvorson v. N. Latah Cnty. Highway Dist., 151 Idaho 196, 208, 254 P.3d 497, 509 (2011).


The question presented is whether, after having dismissed the County's complaint as time-barred by I.C. § 37–2744(c)(3), the magistrate court was obligated to also award attorney fees to Cunningham pursuant to Idaho Code § 12–117(1) because the County's late filing of its complaint and its opposition to Cunningham's motion to dismiss the untimely action were unreasonable. Section 12–117(1) specifies that in a civil action involving a political subdivision, the prevailing party must be awarded reasonable attorney fees if the court finds that the nonprevailing party acted "without a reasonable basis in fact or law." For purposes of this statute, a county is a "political subdivision." I.C. § 12–117(4)(b) (2010). A determination that a party acted under a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute would preclude an award under the statute, even if that interpretation is ultimately determined to be erroneous. Randel, 152 Idaho at 909–10, 277 P.3d at 356–57; In re Russet Valley Produce, Inc., 127 Idaho 654, 661, 904 P.2d 566, 573 (1995) ; Cox v. Dep't of Ins., 121 Idaho 143, 148, 823 P.2d 177, 182 (Ct.App.1991). However, because I.C. § 12–117 provides that the court shall award fees, a fee award is required if a party acts without a reasonable factual or legal basis. Randel, 152 Idaho at 909, 277 P.3d at 356; Idaho Dep't of Law Enforcement v. Kluss, 125 Idaho 682, 685, 873 P.2d 1336, 1339 (1994).

The statute whose interpretation is at issue is I.C. § 37–2744(c), which provides:

(c) In the event of seizure pursuant to subsection (b) of this section, proceedings under subsection (d) of this section shall be instituted promptly.
(1) When property is seized under this section, the director or the peace officer who seized the property may:
(A) Place the property under seal;
(B) Remove the property to a place designated by it; or
(C) Take custody of the property and remove it to an appropriate location for disposition in accordance with law.
(2) The peace officer who seized the property shall within five (5) days notify the director of such seizure.
(3) In the event of seizure pursuant to subsection (b) of this section, proceedings under subsection (d) of this section shall be instituted within thirty (30) days by the director or appropriate prosecuting attorney.2

(emphasis added).

Here, the cash was seized from Cunningham's home on March 30, 2011, and the County's complaint seeking civil forfeiture of that cash was filed on May 3, 2011, thirty-four days later. Thus, the question presented is whether Bonner County advanced an interpretation of I.C. § 37–2744(c) by which it could reasonably assert that its filing of the forfeiture complaint four days beyond the thirty-day limit specified in I.C. § 37–2744(c)(3), and its resistance to Cunningham's dismissal motion, were reasonable. The County posits two ambiguities in the statute which, it contends, justify its action.

A. "Promptly "

Bonner County first asserts that the statute is ambiguous concerning the time limit for filing a complaint. The County points out that although I.C. § 37–2744(c)(3) requires that a complaint be filed within thirty days of the seizure, the opening sentence of I.C. § 37–2744(c) requires only that the complaint be filed "promptly." According to the County, it was reasonable to conclude that the statute would be satisfied if the complaint was filed "promptly," even if not within thirty days of the seizure. Thus, the County argues that because the statute can be reasonably interpreted to allow commencement of a forfeiture action more than thirty days after the seizure of the property, its conduct did not warrant an award of attorney fees even though that interpretation was ultimately rejected by the court. Bonner County advanced this argument in its opposition to Cunningham's motion to dismiss, but the magistrate court concluded that the plain meaning of the statutory language was that the thirty-day requirement was "absolute."

The interpretation of a statute begins with its literal words. Those words must be given their plain, obvious, and rational meaning. State v. Burnight, 132 Idaho 654, 659, 978 P.2d 214, 219 (1999). If the statute is not ambiguous, this Court does not construe it, but simply follows the law as written. Verska v. Saint Alphonsus Reg'l Med. Ctr., 151 Idaho 889, 893, 265 P.3d 502, 506 (2011) ; State v. Schwartz, 139 Idaho 360, 362, 79 P.3d 719, 721 (2003), abrogated on other grounds by Verska, 151 Idaho 889, 265 P.3d 502. A statute is ambiguous where the language is capable of more than one reasonable construction. Porter v. Bd. of Trustees, Preston School Dist. No. 201, 141 Idaho 11, 14, 105 P.3d 671, 674 (2004). Ambiguity is not established merely because different interpretations are presented by the parties. If that were the test then all statutes whose meanings are contested in litigation could be considered ambiguous. "[A] statute is not ambiguous merely because an astute mind can devise more than one interpretation of it." 2007 Legendary Motorcycle, 154 Idaho at 354, 298 P.3d at 248; see also In re Permit No. 36–7200 in Name of Idaho Dep't of Parks & Recreation, 121 Idaho 819, 823, 828 P.2d 848, 852 (1992), abrogated on other grounds by Verska, 151 Idaho 889, 265 P.3d 502.

If the statute is ambiguous, then it must be construed in accord with legislative intent. City of Sandpoint v. Sandpoint Indep. Highway Dist., 139 Idaho 65, 69, 72 P.3d 905, 909 (2003). Legislative intent is determined by examining "the literal words of the statute ... the reasonableness of proposed constructions, the public policy behind the statute, and its legislative history." Id.; see also American Bank v. Wadsworth Golf Const. Co. of the Southwest, 155 Idaho 186, 192, 307 P.3d 1212, 1218 (2013). Statutory provisions that are in pari materia, i.e., relating to the same subject, should be construed harmoniously, if possible, so as to further the legislative intent. State v. Gamino, 148 Idaho 827, 828–29, 230 P.3d 437, 438–39 (Ct.App.2010) ; State v. Callaghan, 143 Idaho 856, 858, 153 P.3d 1202, 1204 (Ct.App.2006) ; State v. Maland, 124 Idaho 537, 540, 861 P.2d 107, 110 (Ct.App.1993). Thus, we must reconcile apparent inconsistencies between statutes if it is possible to do so. State v. Pedraza, 101 Idaho 440, 442, 614 P.2d 980, 982 (1980) ; Christensen v. West, 92 Idaho 87, 88, 437 P.2d 359, 360 (1968) ; Sampson v. Layton, 86 Idaho 453, 457, 387 P.2d 883, 885 (1963). It is incumbent upon a court to give an ambiguous statute an interpretation that will not render it a nullity, and effect must be given to all the words of the statute if possible, so that none will be void, superfluous, or redundant. State v. Mercer, 143 Idaho 108, 109, 138 P.3d 308, 309 (2006). Co...

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2 cases
  • State v. Noeller
    • United States
    • Idaho Court of Appeals
    • October 19, 2016
    ...ambiguity is not established merely because different interpretations are presented by the parties. Bonner County v. Cunningham, 156 Idaho 291, 295, 323 P.3d 1252, 1256 (Ct. App. 2014). As such, we will construe I.C. § 49-944 as written. Idaho Code Section 49-944(1) states it is "unlawful f......
  • Gugino v. Credit Acceptance Corp. (In re Conklin)
    • United States
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    • June 6, 2014
    ...However, the entire statute must be read together to determine when the lien was “so filed.” See Bonner Cnty. v. Cunningham, 156 Idaho 291, 323 P.3d 1252, 1257 (Ct.App.2014) (stating “the fundamental principle of statutory construction requir[es] an interpretation that gives effect to all t......

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