State v. Williams, 83992–1.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Writing for the CourtCHAMBERS, J.
Citation171 Wash.2d 474,251 P.3d 877
PartiesSTATE of Washington, Respondent,v.Michael Deroun WILLIAMS, Petitioner.
Docket NumberNo. 83992–1.,83992–1.
Decision Date12 May 2011

171 Wash.2d 474
251 P.3d 877

STATE of Washington, Respondent,
Michael Deroun WILLIAMS, Petitioner.

No. 83992–1.

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc.

Argued Jan. 13, 2011.Decided May 12, 2011.

[251 P.3d 878]

Kathryn A. Russell Selk, Russell Selk Law Office, Seattle, WA, for Petitioner.Michelle Luna–Green, Kimberley Ann Demarco, Pierce County Prosecutor's Office, Tacoma, WA, for Respondent.CHAMBERS, J.

¶ 1 Michael Williams drove away from a Les Schwab dealership without paying for his new tires and wheels. An employee called the police, and officers tracked down Williams at his girl friend's home. Williams admitted to the officer he had driven away without paying but gave his brother's name instead of his own, apparently to avoid discovery of an outstanding warrant for a community custody violation. Williams was convicted of first degree theft, making a false statement to a public servant, and obstructing a law enforcement officer. Williams appealed, arguing that legislative history and case law show the obstruction statute applies only where there is some conduct in addition to false statements. The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction. We reverse the Court of Appeals and hold the obstruction statute requires some conduct in addition to making false statements.


¶ 2 Williams went to a Les Schwab dealership to have new tires and wheels installed on his girl friend's Jeep Cherokee. When the work was completed, Williams attempted to pay the $1,694.96 bill with a check. The check was rejected by a verification service, and Williams and a store employee agreed that Williams would go to the bank and return with the money. The employee told Williams to leave the keys and the car. Williams left the keys before he departed, but the employee later noticed the Jeep was gone. After attempting unsuccessfully to contact Williams, the employee called the police.

¶ 3 The dealership had the license number for the Jeep, and the police soon determined the registered owner. When they arrived at the owner's apartment they found both the Jeep and Williams. Williams admitted he had driven away from the dealership without paying and said he had gone to run errands but meant to return and pay. When asked to identify himself, he gave his brother's name instead of his own. When Williams was seemingly unable to remember or produce any other identifying information, and when the police found the physical description

[251 P.3d 879]

of his brother did not match his appearance, he was arrested. It was then revealed during booking that his real name was Michael Deroun Williams and he had an outstanding arrest warrant. Williams was charged and convicted of first degree theft, obstructing a law enforcement officer, and making a false or misleading statement to a public servant. The false statement and obstruction convictions were both based on his providing false information to the police. Williams appealed only the obstruction conviction. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that under the plain language of RCW 9A.76.020(1), providing false information, by itself, is sufficient to support a conviction for obstruction. State v. Williams, 152 Wash.App. 937, 219 P.3d 978 (2009).

I. Standard of Review

¶ 4 Resolution of this appeal requires construction of the statute criminalizing obstruction of an officer. Construction of a statute is a question of law we review de novo. State v. Wentz, 149 Wash.2d 342, 346, 68 P.3d 282 (2003). The court's duty in statutory interpretation is to discern and implement the legislature's intent. State v. J.P., 149 Wash.2d 444, 450, 69 P.3d 318 (2003). Where possible, we construe statutes so as to preserve their constitutionality. In re Pers. Restraint of Matteson, 142 Wash.2d 298, 307, 12 P.3d 585 (2000) (quoting Addleman v. Bd. of Prison Terms, 107 Wash.2d 503, 510, 730 P.2d 1327 (1986)).

II. Statutory Construction

¶ 5 Williams' false statements about his identity led to two separate convictions under two separate statutes. RCW 9A.76.175 prohibits a person from knowingly making a false or misleading material statement to a public servant.1 Because Williams did not challenge his conviction under this statute it is not before us.

¶ 6 Williams was also convicted of obstructing an officer under RCW 9A.76.020:

(1) A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.

(2) “Law enforcement officer” means any general authority, limited authority, or specially commissioned Washington peace officer or federal peace officer as those terms are defined in RCW 10.93.020, and other public officers who are responsible for enforcement of fire, building, zoning, and life and safety codes.

(3) Obstructing a law enforcement officer is a gross misdemeanor.

Although his arguments are based on constitutional grounds, Williams does not challenge the constitutionality of RCW 9A.76.020. Instead, Williams contends that his conduct did not fall within the meaning of the statute because Washington courts have long construed it and its predecessors as requiring some conduct in addition to pure speech in order to avoid constitutional infirmities.2

¶ 7 Williams is correct that Washington courts have long limited the application of obstruction statutes based upon speech and have held a statute with similar language unconstitutional. Forty years ago, the Washington Court of Appeals interpreted a municipal ordinance, modeled after a predecessor of the statute before us. City of Mountlake Terrace v. Stone, 6 Wash.App. 161, 492 P.2d 226 (1971). Luther Stone, a jogger, was walking near his home in the city of Mountlake Terrace. Id. at 162–63, 492 P.2d 226. A Mountlake Terrace officer drove by and observed that Stone was breathing heavily, perspiring, wearing dark clothing, and carrying what the officer described to be

[251 P.3d 880]

a “ ‘Russian type hat.’ ” Id. The officer pulled his car alongside Stone and the two exchanged greetings as Stone continued to walk and the officer drove alongside him. Id. The officer requested Stone identify himself, provide identification, and explain his presence. Id. Stone asked if his response would be voluntary or required. Id. When the officer stated that he would be required to produce identification and answer questions, Stone declined, stating that he did not believe that the officer had the right to require identification or a response to questions. Id. Stone proceeded to his home. Id. The officer, now with backup, went to Stone's house where the two continued their discussion. Id. Eventually Stone was arrested and charged with obstructing an officer. Id. Stone challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance.3

¶ 8 The Court of Appeals noted that “ ‘[t]o be consistent with due process, a penal statute or ordinance must contain ascertainable standards of guilt, so that men of reasonable understanding are not required to guess at the meaning of the enactment.’ ” Id. at 164, 492 P.2d 226 (quoting City of Seattle v. Drew, 70 Wash.2d 405, 408, 423 P.2d 522 (1967)). Further, “[a]n ordinance that restricts such freedom must contain standards that are reasonable and that do not permit arbitrary enforcement.” Id. The court observed that, “[t]he interrogatee, in determining whether the officer may lawfully require an answer, must ask himself whether the demandable answers include answers which are privileged by statute, decision, or the Const. art. 1, or by the first, third, fourth, fifth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution.” Id. at 168, 492 P.2d 226. The court found the portions of the ordinance prohibiting refusal to give information to an officer vague and violative of the Fourteenth Amendment.

¶ 9 In 1978, this court addressed the statute after which the Mountlake Terrace ordinance was modeled, former RCW 9.69.060 (1909).4 State v. Grant, 89 Wash.2d 678, 575 P.2d 210 (1978). Jean Grant was charged with obstructing an officer who was in the process of arresting the driver for intoxication while driving the vehicle in which she was riding. Id. at 680–81, 575 P.2d 210. Not unaffected by drink herself, Grant engaged in more than just speech to prompt the obstruction of an officer charge. Id. at 680–81, 686, 575 P.2d 210. In affirming her conviction we distinguished Stone, noting that only a portion of the statute had been found to be unconstitutionally vague in that case. Id. at 685–86, 575 P.2d 210. We concluded the remaining portion of the statute was constitutionally adequate because it focused on conduct rather than speech. Id.; see also State v. Lalonde, 35 Wash.App. 54, 59, 60, 665 P.2d 421 (1983) (noting that “[u]nless a First Amendment freedom is involved, the statute must be examined in light of the facts in the case at issue” and holding that under the facts of the case, former RCW 9A.76.020 (1995) was not vague because it “focused on conduct other than speech”).

¶ 10 Four years after we decided Grant, this court was called upon to interpret the successor statute to the one at issue in Grant, former RCW 9A.76.020 (1975).5

[251 P.3d 881]

State v. White, 97 Wash.2d 92, 640 P.2d 1061 (1982), called into question on other grounds by State v. Afana, 169 Wash.2d 169, 182 n. 8, 233 P.3d 879 (2010). In White, an officer responded to a report of a suspicious person hanging around a neighborhood near the railroad tracks. Id. at 95, 640 P.2d 1061. The responding officer saw Allen White carrying a large plastic garbage bag containing such items as kerosene, charcoal, magazines, and a skillet. Id. The officer asked for identification and White denied having any; the officer then asked for his name to which White answered truthfully. Id. When asked where he lived, White answered evasively and pointed down the road toward some houses but could not specify in which house he lived. Id. The officer...

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