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State v. Daniels

Superior Court of Delaware

November 13, 2019


          Submitted: September 18, 2019

          Written Order Issued: December 13, 2019

          Corrected: December 16, 2019

         Upon the State's Application to Sentence Defendant Harold I. Daniels under the Third Offender provisions of 21 Del. C. § 4177(d)(3), GRANTED.



         This 13th day of December, 2019, upon consideration of the State's Application to Sentence Defendant Harold I. Daniels under the Third Offender provisions of 21 Del. C. § 4177(d)(3) (D.I. 18, 24, and 26), Daniels' Objections thereto (D.I. 20, 25, and 27), and the record in this matter, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Defendant Harold I. Daniels was convicted of alcohol-related reckless driving in Delaware in 2000.[1] He was convicted of another intoxicated driving offense in New Jersey in 2012.[2] In this case, Daniels pleaded guilty to another violation of Delaware's Driving Under the Influence ("DUI") law that occurred in December 2018.[3] Daniels contests the fact or validity of none of these convictions. So, the State timely moved[4] to have Daniels sentenced as a third-time DUI offender.[5]To this, Daniels objects, claiming that certain differences between the laws defining New Jersey's and Delaware's DUI offenses preclude consideration of his New Jersey conviction as a prior offense within the meaning of the Delaware statute, unless the State were to provide additional evidence regarding the specifics of that New Jersey conviction.[6]

         (2) The sole issue presented is whether Delaware's DUI recidivist statute- which provides for an enhanced severity in charge and sentence if the one has a "prior or previous conviction or offense"[7]-treats a conviction under New Jersey's corresponding DUI law as a "prior or previous conviction or offense."[8] Daniels argues that New Jersey's DUI statute cannot be considered a "similar" statute under this definition because in addition to criminalizing one's own impaired operation, it prohibits, within its very text, a person to permit another who is under the influence to operate a vehicle that the accused owns, has custody of, or controls.[9]

         (3) At bottom, this is a question of statutory interpretation for which the Court's role is only "to determine and give effect to the legislature's intent."[10] When the questioned statute read as a whole is unambiguous, that is accomplished by applying the plain, literal meaning of its words.[11] Statutes are unambiguous when their words reasonably bear only one non-absurd interpretation.[12] And "[w]here a statute contains unambiguous language that clearly reflects the intent of the legislature, then the language of the statute controls."[13]

         (4) This Court has no discretion to deny a State's application to sentence a DUI offender in accordance with an applicable DUI recidivist provision if that offender has the requisite "prior or previous convictions[s] or offense[s]."[14] With rare exception, the Court must accept those sentence-enhancing prior convictions alleged in such motions as legally valid;[15] and, it is forbidden always from hearing new collateral challenges to those convictions.[16]

         (5) The Delaware DUI statute defines a "prior or previous conviction or offense" as, in relevant part, "[a] conviction or other adjudication of guilt . . . pursuant to § 4175(b)[17] or § 4177[18] of [Title 21], or a similar statute of any state or local jurisdiction, any federal or military reservation or the District of Columbia."[19]

         (6) Undefined words or phrases in the Delaware code are "construed according to the common and approved usage of the English language."[20] And in the criminal context, all words used in the Criminal Code are given their commonly accepted meaning, unless they are specifically defined elsewhere in the Criminal Code.[21] So, consequently, "[u]nder well-settled case law, Delaware courts look to dictionaries for assistance in determining the plain meaning of terms which are not defined" within the statutes they appear.[22]

         (7) The applicable dictionary definition of "similar" is "nearly corresponding; resembling in many respects; having a general likeness, although allowing for some degree of difference."[23]

         (8) Daniels' invocation of case law examining the definition of "violent felony" under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA")[24] in unavailing in this instance. That federal firearms statute prescribes an enhanced sentence for certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions "for a violent felony."[25]And, as pertinent to those cases Daniels cites, the ACCA defines a foreign (i.e., a state or local) conviction as being a "violent felony" when it "is burglary, arson, or extortion" among other offenses.[26]

         (9) When interpreting the ACCA, the United States Supreme Court approved the use of a "modified categorical approach" in a "narrow range of cases" in which a divisible statute-that is, one listing potential offense elements in the alternative-renders opaque which element supported the defendant's prior state criminal conviction.[27] This approach is necessitated under the ACCA because a federal sentencing judge must determine whether that prior state conviction "is" one of the ACCA's enumerated enhancing crimes.[28] And to make that determination the federal courts might then have to rely on what have become known as "Shepard documents."[29]

         (10) Delaware courts have adopted this same sentencing approach for the state analogue to the ACCA-possession of a firearm by a person prohibited ("PFBPP").[30] That is because one faces an enhanced PFBPP sentence based on a foreign conviction only if that prior conviction was for an offense that is "the same as or equivalent to" a violent felony under Delaware law.[31] The definition of those key words-"same," which means "identical or equal; resembling in every relevant respect"[32] and "equivalent" which means "nearly equal; virtually identical"[33]- dictate a far more precise correspondence between the person's prior foreign crime and an offense specified under Delaware law.

         (11) But that approach plays no role here, because the Court need only determine whether Daniels was previously convicted under a DUI statute "similar" to Delaware's.[34]

         (12) Where the General Assembly governs the same subject matter in different provisions using different operative language with distinctive definitions and meaning, the Court "must presume that each word and phrase choice by the legislature ... is meaningful."[35] Because the legislature elected to use "similar" rather than "the same or equivalent to," the Court is constrained to give that choice effect. Thus, when making this DUI recidivist sentencing determination the Court "[i]s only required to determine that [the defendant] had been convicted in [another state] pursuant to a statute that was 'similar' to Delaware's."[36] And the plain meaning of "a similar statute" means there need only be "a general likeness" with "some degree of difference" allowed.

         (13) Moreover, the single "difference" in the New Jersey law that Daniels points out-a provision that explicitly forbids a person who owns or controls a vehicle from knowingly permitting an intoxicated driver to operate that vehicle[37]- is truly illusory.

         (14) A defendant who aids or abets another to drive or operate a motor vehicle, knowing that the other is intoxicated, is criminally liable for the driving offense under ordinary principles of accomplice liability[38] according to the consensus of jurisdictions that have examined the question.[39] And while no Delaware court has yet to rule on the issue, it would seem Delaware's DUI and accomplice liability statutes would operate in the same manner as New ...

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