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State v. Dennis

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

July 26, 2018

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
EDGAR DENNIS III, Petitioner.

          JOHNSON, J.

         This case concerns the statutory interpretation of the portion of RCW 9.41.040 dealing with requirements for restoration of firearm rights. The statute allows an offender to petition for restoration of firearm rights "after five or more consecutive years in the community without being convicted ... or currently charged with any felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor crimes." RCW 9.41.040(4)(a)(ii)(A). At issue is whether this required five-year period must immediately precede the petition for restoration or if any conviction-free five-year period suffices. We reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that any five-year conviction-free period satisfies this requirement for eligibility to petition for restoration of firearm rights.

         FACTS

         In 1991, Edgar Dennis III was convicted of second degree robbery, third degree assault, and two counts of felony violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, chapter 69.50 RCW. His convictions disqualified him from possessing a firearm. Dennis was also convicted of third degree assault in 1998. After serving his sentence, he lived in the community for over 15 years without a conviction. Then, in 2014, he was convicted of first degree negligent driving, a misdemeanor.

         In April 2016, Dennis petitioned the court for restoration of his firearm rights. He did not disclose his 2014 conviction. The State objected to his petition and informed the court of his 2014 conviction, arguing the statutory requirement of a five-year conviction-free period must immediately precede a petition for restoration. The superior court denied the petition. In a motion for reconsideration, Dennis argued that the trial court had erred in not following the Division Two of the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute that any conviction-free five-year period satisfies the requirement. Payseno v. Kitsap County, 186 Wn.App. 465, 473, 346 P.3d 784 (2015). The superior court denied the motion. Dennis appealed to Division One and the court affirmed, holding that the five-year period must immediately precede a petition for restoration. State v. Dennis, 200 Wn.App. 654, 666, 402 P.3d 943 (2017). We granted review to resolve this split between Divisions One and Two. State v. Dennis, 189 Wn.2d 1031, 407 P.3d 1146 (2018).

         ISSUE

         Whether RCW 9.41.040(4)(a)(ii)(A) requires a petitioner be conviction-free for five consecutive years or more immediately preceding the filing of the petition.

         ANALYSIS

         RCW 9.41.040(4)(a)(ii)(A) allows a person who has lost his or her firearm rights to petition the court for restoration of those rights. Once all the statutory requirements for restoration have been satisfied, a superior court's role in approving the petition is purely ministerial; the court has no discretion. State v. Swanson, 116 Wn.App. 67, 78, 65 P.3d 343 (2003). The statute states in relevant part:

An individual may petition a court of record to have his or her right to possess a firearm restored ... [i]f the conviction or finding of not guilty by reason of insanity was for a felony offense, after Jive or more consecutive years in the community without being convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity or currently charged with any felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor crimes, if the individual has no prior felony convictions that prohibit the possession of a firearm counted as part of the offender score under RCW 9.94A.525.

RCW 9.41.040(4)(b), (4)(a)(ii)(A) (emphasis added).

         We review issues of statutory interpretation de novo. State v. Evans, 177 Wn.2d 186, 192, 298 P.3d 724 (2013). The purpose of statutory interpretation is '"to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature.'" Evans, 177 Wn.2d at 192 (quoting State v. Sweany, 174 Wn.2d 909, 914, 281 P.3d 305 (2012)). "When we interpret a criminal statute, we give it a literal and strict interpretation." State v. Delgado, 148 Wn.2d 723, 727, 63 P.3d 792 (2003) (citing State v. Wilson, 125 Wn, 2d 212, 217, 883 P.2d 320 (1994)). We derive the legislative intent of a statute solely from the plain language by considering the text of the provision in question, the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. Evans, 177 Wn.2d at 192 (citing State v. Ervin, 169 Wn.2d 815, 820, 239 P.3d 354 (2010)).

         If, after this inquiry, there is more than one reasonable interpretation of the plain language, then a statute is ambiguous and we may rely on principles of statutory construction, legislative history, and relevant case law to discern legislative intent. Ervin, 169 Wn.2d at 820 (quoting Christensen v. Ellsworth, 162 Wn.2d 365, 373, 173 P.3d 228 (2007)). A statute is "not ambiguous simply because different interpretations are conceivable." Berger v. Sonneland, 144 Wn.2d 91, 105, 26 P.3d 257 (2001) (citing State v. Till, 139 Wn.2d 107, 115, 985 P.2d 365 (1999)).

         Both parties argue the provision is unambiguous and should be interpreted their way. Dennis argues that the State's interpretation requires reading "immediately preceding" into the statute. It is a well-established principle of statutory interpretation that we may not add words "to an unambiguous statute when the legislature has chosen not to include that language." Delgado, 148 Wn.2d at 727. No language in the statute states the five-year period must immediately precede the petition. If the legislature wanted the five-year period ...


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