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Ex parte Contreras

Supreme Court of Alabama

January 16, 2018

Ex parte Ramiro Delreal Contreras
State of Alabama In re: Ramiro Delreal Contreras

         (Lee Circuit Court, CC-12-858; Court of Criminal Appeals, CR-14-0980)


          PER CURIAM

         The writ of certiorari is quashed.

         In quashing the writ of certiorari, this Court does not wish to be understood as approving all the language, reasons, or statements of law in the Court of Criminal Appeals' opinion. Horsley v. Horsley, 291 Ala. 782, 280 So.2d 155 (1973).

         WRIT QUASHED.

          Stuart, C.J., and Parker, Main, Wise, Bryan, and Sellers, JJ., concur.

          Murdock, J., dissents.

          SHAW, Justice (concurring specially).

         I concur to quash the writ of certiorari issued in this case.

         The facts of this case are thoroughly discussed in the Court of Criminal Appeals' opinion in Contreras v. State, [Ms. CR-14-0980, July 8, 2016] ___ So.3d ___ (Ala.Crim.App.2016), and in Justice Murdock's dissent. For the purposes of this writing, it is sufficient to note that the defendant, Ramiro Delreal Contreras, was accused of killing the four-year-old daughter of his girlfriend. Specifically, the child suffered an abdominal injury caused by blunt-force trauma that resulted in a lacerated liver and the severing of her small intestine, which ultimately resulted in her death.

         Contreras was convicted under Ala. Code 1975, § 13A-6-2(a)(3), of felony murder. The version of that Code section applicable at the time of trial in this case stated:[1]

"(a) A person commits the crime of murder if he or she does any of the following:
"(3) He or she commits or attempts to commit arson in the first degree, burglary in the first or second degree, escape in the first degree, kidnapping in the first degree, rape in the first degree, robbery in any degree, sodomy in the first degree, any other felony clearly dangerous to human life and, in the course of and in furtherance of the crime that he or she is committing or attempting to commit, or in immediate flight therefrom, he or she, or another participant if there be any, causes the death of any person."

(Emphasis added.) The "other felony" underlying Contreras's conviction was predicated on the crime of aggravated child abuse set out in Ala. Code 1975, § 26-15-3.1: "A responsible person, as defined in [Ala. Code 1975, §] 26-15-2, commits the crime of aggravated child abuse if he or she ... violates the provisions of Section 26-15-3 which causes serious physical injury ... to the child." A responsible person is defined as "[a] child's natural parent, stepparent, adoptive parent, legal guardian, custodian, or any other person who has the permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for the supervision of a child." Ala. Code 1975, § 26-15-2. A person violates Ala. Code 1975, § 26-15-3, if he or she "torture[s], willfully abuse[s], cruelly beat[s], or otherwise willfully maltreat[s] any child under the age of 18 years."

         On appeal before the Court of Criminal Appeals, Contreras challenged his felony-murder conviction on the basis that, under the "merger doctrine" explained in Barnett v. State, 783 So.2d 927 (Ala.Crim.App.2000), aggravated child abuse could not serve as the underlying felony for purposes of a felony-murder conviction. Barnett explains the merger doctrine as follows:

"'We have concluded that the utilization of the felony-murder rule in circumstances such as those before us[, a felonious assault, ] extends the operation of [the felony-murder] rule "beyond any rational function it is designed to serve." (People v. Washington (1965) 62 Cal. 2d 777, 783, 44 Cal.Rptr. 442, 446, 402 P.2d 130, 134.) To allow such use of the felony-murder rule would effectively preclude the jury from considering the issue of malice aforethought in all cases wherein homicide has been committed as a result of a felonious assault--a category which includes the great majority of all homicides. This kind of bootstrapping finds support neither in logic nor in law.'"

Barnett, 783 So.2d at 929 (quoting People v. Ireland, 70 Cal. 2d 522');">70 Cal. 2d 522, 529, 450 P.2d 580, 590, 75 Cal.Rptr. 188, 198 (1969)). The court in Barnett reasoned that, if the State could convict a defendant for murder or manslaughter merely by proving the requisite intent for assault, as opposed to the requisite intent for murder or manslaughter, then the Code sections establishing the crimes of murder and manslaughter would essentially be eliminated, a result the legislature did not intend. See 783 So.2d at 930 ("If prosecutors could prove murder by proving the intent element of assault as opposed to the requisite mens rea for murder or manslaughter, §§ 13A-6-2(a)(1) and (2), 13A-6-2(b), and 13A-6-3, Ala. Code 1975[, ] would effectively be eliminated. Clearly, such a result would be contrary to legislative intent."). Further, the Barnett court expressed its belief that the legislature could not have intended such an absurd and harsh result. Id.

         Although not discussed in Barnett, a holding that the language of § 13A-6-2(a)(3) created an absurd result, in my opinion, would be a prerequisite to rejecting the plain language of the statute and resorting to construing the statute in an effort to determine the legislative intent. Specifically, the "intent" of the legislature is expressed in the language of a statute. When the language is plain and unambiguous, then that language must be enforced as written to put that "intent" into effect.

"'The fundamental rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature in enacting the statute. Words used in a statute must be given their natural, plain, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning, and where plain language is used a court is bound to interpret that language to mean exactly what it says. If the language of the statute is unambiguous, then there is no room for judicial construction and the clearly expressed intent of the legislature must be given effect.'
"IMED Corp. v. Systems Eng'g Assocs. Corp., 602 So.2d 344, 346 (Ala. 1992). See also Ex parte T.B., 698 So.2d 127, 130 (Ala. 1997), and Ex parte Ankrom, 152 So.3d 397, 431 (Ala. 2013) (Shaw, J., concurring in part and concurring in the result) (stating that when '[t]he language of [a] Code section is clear[, ] there is nothing to construe [and] no need to attempt to divine the "intent" of the legislature'). ...2
" ___
"2The purpose of the plain-meaning rule--to give effect to the legislature's words when determining its intent--is rooted in the doctrine of separation of powers: 'To apply a different policy would turn this Court into a legislative body, and doing that, of course, would be utterly inconsistent with the doctrine of separation of powers.' DeKalb Cty. LP Gas Co., Inc. v. Suburban Gas, Inc., 729 So.2d 270, 276 (Ala. 1998)."

Ex parte N.B., 222 So.3d 1160, 1160-61 (Ala. 2016) (Shaw, J., concurring specially). Additionally, we can depart from the literal meaning of a statute when applying the literal meaning would "produce an absurd and unjust result." City of Bessemerv. McClain, 957 So.2d 1061, 1075 (Ala. 2006). A rule of statutory construction--in this case, the merger doctrine[2]-- cannot be used to deviate from the plain language of a statute unless that language is ambiguous or would create an absurd result. ...

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