Langley v. State, S21G0783

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Writing for the CourtBOGGS, PRESIDING JUSTICE.
Docket NumberS21G0783
Decision Date01 February 2022



No. S21G0783

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 1, 2022


We granted certiorari in this case to decide whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that trial courts lack the discretion to probate any portion of a sentence imposed for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. See State v. Langley, 358 Ga.App. 343, 345 (855 S.E.2d 376) (2021). We conclude that the Court of Appeals did err, and we therefore reverse its judgment.

1. In 1987, Dennis Mark Langley was convicted of murder and sentenced to serve life in prison. He was later released on parole. On July 26, 2019, a search of Langley's home revealed a semi-automatic pistol with a loaded magazine hanging on a wall in his living room and two rifles in his bedroom closet.


Langley was charged by accusation with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of OCGA § 16-11-131 (b).[1] The accusation specified that he had previously been convicted of a forcible felony, murder. Langley pled guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to a term of imprisonment with the first six months to be served in confinement and the remainder to be served on probation. The State filed a timely notice of appeal directed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court lacked


the authority to impose a probated sentence and that the sentence was therefore void. See OCGA § 5-7-1 (a) (6) (authorizing appeal by State in criminal case where trial court's order is void).

The Court of Appeals acknowledged "the trial court's general discretion under OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A) to impose a probated sentence" but concluded that the specific and mandatory phrase "shall be imprisoned" in OCGA § 16-11-131 (b) prevailed over the general grant of authority to "probate all or any part" of a determinate sentence contained in OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A).[2]


Langley, 358 Ga.App. at 345. The Court of Appeals relied in part on State v. Jones, 265 Ga.App. 493 (594 S.E.2d 706) (2004), which held that the phrase "shall be imprisoned for not less than ten years" in OCGA § 16-13-30 (d), a recidivist provision applicable to certain drug offenses, precluded a trial court from probating any part of the first ten years of the defendant's sentence for his second conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.[3] See Jones, 265 Ga.App. at 495. The Court of Appeals vacated Langley's sentence and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. See Langley, 358 Ga.App. at 345. We granted Langley's petition for certiorari.


2. Langley contends that the Court of Appeals erred in construing the phrase "shall be imprisoned" in OCGA § 16-11-131 (b) to deprive the trial court of discretion to impose a probated sentence pursuant to OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A). We agree.

In interpreting statutes, we "presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant." Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172 (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted).

[A]nd so, we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would. The common and customary usages of the words are important, but so is their context. For context, we may look to other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law - constitutional, statutory, and common law alike - that forms the legal background of the statutory provision in question.

Zaldivar v. Prickett, 297 Ga. 589, 591 (774 S.E.2d 688) (2015) (citations and punctuation omitted). Moreover, "[a]ll statutes relating to the same subject matter are to be construed together, and harmonized wherever possible." Hartley v. Agnes Scott College, 295 Ga. 458, 462 (759 S.E.2d 857) (2014) (citation and punctuation


omitted). Thus, "[w]e construe statutes in connection and in harmony with the existing law, and as a part of a general and uniform system of jurisprudence." In the Interest of M. D. H., 300 Ga. 46, 53 (793 S.E.2d 49) (2016) (citation and punctuation omitted).

Looking to the statutory text and context, there is no real question about what the phrase "shall be imprisoned" - standing alone - means in a penal statute. In ordinary English, the phrase "shall be imprisoned" means that a person convicted of an offense is to be "confined" for the period specified by the statute. See, e.g., Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1137 (1966) (defining "imprison" to mean "to put in prison" or "confine in a jail"). The question in this case is how a statute containing that phrase interacts with OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A), which says that upon conviction, the trial court shall impose a "determinate sentence for a specific number of months or years" that is within the sentencing range "prescribed by law as the punishment for the crime" but then adds that "[t]he judge imposing the sentence is granted power and authority to suspend or probate all or any part of the entire


sentence." According to the State, the answer is simple: if the penal statute uses the phrase "shall be imprisoned," probation is never allowed, because the sentence must be served in confinement.

In light of the statutory text and context, that cannot be correct. To see why, it is helpful to take a broader look at how Georgia's penal statutes in general prescribe sentences. That wider review reveals that virtually all penal statutes in Georgia introduce the sentencing range for a violation with one of two phrases: either "shall be imprisoned," see, e.g., OCGA §§ 13-9-3 (b) (entering into contract for sale of commodities without bona fide intention to deliver), 16-9-58 (fraudulent failure to pay for delivered agricultural products or chattels), 16-11-126 (i) (2) (second or subsequent conviction for carrying a weapon without a valid weapons carry license), 16-12-1 (d) (1) (contributing to the delinquency or deprivation of a minor); or, more commonly, "shall be punished by imprisonment," see, e.g., OCGA §§ 10-4-78 (making false affidavit as to adverse lien, title, or claim to cotton), 16-9-57 (d) (soliciting donations as representative of peace officer or fire service


organization without authority), 16-11-123 (knowing possession of sawed-off shotgun or rifle, machine gun, dangerous weapon, or silencer), 16-12-4 (e) (aggravated cruelty to animals). Despite the slight difference in wording, both phrases mean the same thing. In ordinary English, "imprisonment" means "the state of being imprisoned" or "confinement." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1137 (1966). And a person who is "imprisoned" for violating a penal statute is undoubtedly being punished. Thus, the problem with the State's argument is that it would essentially nullify the availability of probation in Georgia, making the part of OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A) that authorizes trial courts to probate sentences a virtual dead letter. See State v. Hudson, 303 Ga. 348, 352 (812 S.E.2d 270) (2018) ("Harmonizing statutes means giving effect to each of them.").

Given this context, we conclude that both phrases - "shall be imprisoned" and "shall be punished by imprisonment" - function as terms of art in Georgia sentencing...

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