No. 2 CA-CR 2020-0071
Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General Michael T. O'Toole, Acting Section Chief Counsel By Heather A. Mosher, Assistant Attorney General, Tucson Counsel for Appellee Robert A. Kerry, Tucson Counsel for Appellant
Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General Michael T. O'Toole, Acting Section Chief Counsel By Heather A. Mosher, Assistant Attorney General, Tucson Counsel for Appellee
Robert A. Kerry, Tucson Counsel for Appellant
Judge Eckerstrom authored the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Eppich and Judge Espinosa concurred.
ECKERSTROM, Judge: ¶1 This appeal requires us to determine whether a court-appointed defense attorney, under contract with a county, qualifies as a "public defender" for purposes of A.R.S. § 13-1204(A)(8)(i), under which a simple assault becomes an aggravated assault. Because we agree with the trial court that the statute should be interpreted to include the type of assault that occurred here, we affirm.
Factual and Procedural Background
¶2 The facts are not in dispute. In April 2018, Appellant Roger Wilson met with attorney P.K. in the Professional Visitation Area at the Pima County Jail. P.K., whose private practice consisted primarily of court-appointed criminal-defense contract work, was being paid by Cochise County to represent Wilson. Wilson qualified for P.K.’s services because he was indigent. At the conclusion of the interview, Wilson punched P.K. in the face in an attempt to create a conflict that would force the court to appoint him new counsel.
¶3 A grand jury charged Wilson with aggravated assault on a public defender under § 13-1204(A)(8)(i), a class six felony. Wilson waived his right to a jury trial, and a one-day bench trial was held at which P.K., Wilson, and two eyewitnesses testified.
¶4 Wilson twice moved for a directed verdict under Rule 20, Ariz. R. Crim. P., arguing the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of aggravated assault because P.K. does not qualify as a "public defender" under the statute. The trial court denied the Rule 20 motions, concluding that a broad interpretation of the term "public defender" is appropriate in the context of § 13-1204(A)(8)(i), where it refers not to "a single office," but to "all those folks who are paid for by a County, whether on a contract basis or working at a particular office ... to represent indigent defendants."
¶5 The trial court then found Wilson guilty as charged and sentenced him to time served. This appeal followed. We have jurisdiction pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 12-120.21(A)(1), 13-4031, and 13-4033(A).
¶6 This case presents a question of statutory interpretation, a pure question of law that we review de novo . See State v. Pena , 235 Ariz. 277, ¶ 5, 331 P.3d 412 (2014). The statute in question establishes that a simple assault becomes an aggravated assault if it is committed against "[a] public defender while engaged in the execution of any official duties or if the assault results from the execution of the public defender's official duties." § 13-1204(A)(8)(i).
¶7 Wilson contends this statute does not extend to assaults on "private attorneys who contract with the county or other state agencies," who are independent contractors with no "official duties," unlike government employees. The state counters that the plain language of the statute "applies to the assault of any ‘defender’ actively engaged in ‘public,’ as opposed to private, service."
¶8 No published case has interpreted this statutory provision. And the term "public defender" is not defined in the statute. We must therefore apply the common meaning of the plain terms of the statute, referring to dictionaries as necessary. Pena , 235 Ariz. 277, ¶ 6, 331 P.3d 412. We may also "consider statutes that are in pari materia —of the same subject or general purpose—for guidance and to give effect to all of the provisions involved." Stambaugh v. Killian , 242 Ariz. 508, ¶ 7, 398 P.3d 574 (2017). "Our task in interpreting the meaning of a statute is to fulfill the intent of the legislature that wrote it." State v. Williams , 175 Ariz. 98, 100, 854 P.2d 131 (1993).
Division One of this court recently addressed the same question in an unpublished decision, which we find persuasive. State v. Knight , No. 1 CA-CR 19-0540, 2020 WL 5244734 (Ariz. App. Sept. 3, 2020) (mem. decision).
¶9 Black's Law Dictionary defines the term "public defender" to mean "[a] lawyer or staff of lawyers, usu[ally] publicly appointed and paid, whose duty is to represent indigent criminal defendants." Public Defender , Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). This definition includes attorneys like P.K., appointed by the court and paid by Cochise County whose duty was to represent Wilson, an indigent criminal defendant, under the same standards expected of any other publicly appointed criminal-defense counsel.
¶10 Although the legislature did not include its own definition of the term "public defender" in the aggravated assault statute, it did provide a definition elsewhere in the Arizona Criminal Code. In particular, in A.R.S. § 13-2401, which prohibits the threatening publication of the personal information of certain public officials on the "world wide web," our legislature defined the term broadly to include not only federal and county public defenders, county legal defenders, and their assistants or deputies, but also "county contract indigent defense counsel." § 13-2401(D)(7). The same broad definition of "public defender" appears in a number of non-criminal statutes aimed at protecting the confidentiality of the personal contact information of certain "eligible persons" (including "public defenders," broadly defined) and prohibiting the nefarious release of such information. See A.R.S. §§ 11-483(O)(12) (records maintained by county recorder), 11-484(K)(11) (records maintained by county assessor and county treasurer), 16-153(K)(11) (voter registration information), 39-123(F)(11) (home addresses and telephone numbers), 39-124(C)(11) (prohibiting nefarious release). All of these statutes expressly protect "county contract indigent defense counsel" like P.K. on the same terms as all other "public defenders."
¶11 These statutes evince a legislative intent to protect those who serve as counsel for indigent criminal defendants, whether they are official government employees or private-practice attorneys working under contract with the government. We can conjure no logical or public policy reason why the same rationale would not apply to the legislature's efforts to protect contract "public defenders" from assault in the course of their work for indigent criminal defendants.
¶12 For the foregoing reasons, we uphold the trial court's determination that county contract indigent defense counsel qualify as "public defenders" for purposes of § 13-1204(A)(8)(i). Accordingly, Wilson's conviction and sentence for aggravated assault are affirmed.