Black’s Law Dictionary: Almost Every Word has Multiple Definitions
This is a long article. Over 9,000 words. It rambles in places. I chase down rabbit trails to the right and to the left. It includes some solid information and also some humorous anecdotes. It’s undisciplined and in need of at least two more proof-readings.
Nevertheless, I've been fooling around with this article for about two weeks, and I have to draw the line somewhere. I have other fish to fry. More, I believe the ideas expressed in this article may be so fundamental and so potentially powerful, that I've got to publish now—even if the text is not as clear as I might otherwise hope.
I think the implications of “Reading is Guessing” are important. This may be one of the most important concepts I've ever presented. I hope you’ll take time to read and consider this article.
In the past five years, I've posted 23 articles that deal with “definitions” on this blog. You can find a list of those articles here: http://adask.wordpress.com/category/definitions/. Definitions aren't simply useful or even important to the law, they are the essence of the law.
You can’t have law without words. You can’t have words without definitions. Definitions are the “sub-atomic particles” of meaning that turn a mere sound or collection of letters into a “word”. If you want to detonate the legal equivalent of an “atomic bomb” in the courts, start tinkering with definitions.
As I pointed out in A.D. 2011, “Definitions are the Law of the Law”.
As former President Bill Clinton once observed concerning the meaning of a particular law, “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” In other words, if you want to know what a law says . . . if you want to know what a law is . . . you must first grasp the definitions of each of even the most trivial and innocuous words used to express that law.
Knowing the definitions of a word is complicated by the fact that if you view a decent dictionary, you’ll see at least 95% of all words have two or more definitions.
A classic illustration of this multiplicity was the definition of the term “United States” provided by the Supreme Court in the Hooven & Allison Co. v Evatt case of A.D. 1945. The Supreme Court declared that there were three possible definitions for the term “United States”. The Supreme Court did not declare there were only three possible definitions and left the door open for other definitions. The Supreme Court did declare that it would never again answer questions about the meaning of the term “United States”. (I wonder if there’s any other subject in all of American history that the Supreme Court has addressed once and then declared that it would never again consider.)
It’s interesting that, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, the Supreme Court’s declaration of three definitions for “United States” held true from Black’s 4th Edition (A.D. 1968) through Black’s 6th (A.D. 1990).
However, in Black’s 7th Edition (A.D. 1999), the definition of “United States” changed when that term disappeared from Black’s 7th at the same time that the term “United States of America” was added as a defined term for the first time. The term “United States of America” had only a single definition, and that definitions was completely different from the three previous definitions for “United States” provided in the Hooven & Allison case.
In Black’s 8th (A.D. 2004) “United States of America” remained and “United States” remained “disappeared”.
In Black’s 9th (A.D. 2009), the terms “United States” reappeared as synonymous with “United States of America”.
These chameleon-like changes in the meaning of “United States” seem almost incomprehensible since we might reasonably suppose that the meaning of the term “United States” would’ve been established with the Constitution of the United States when it was first ratified by the people in A.D. 1788.
I.e., what’s the meaning of the term “England”? What’s the meaning of the terms “Canada” or “Mexico”? You’d suppose that those terms would mean the same thing today they meant a century ago, or even earlier. You’d suppose that those terms would fixed and as unalterable as a cornerstone for church.
The same supposition should apply to the term “United States”. If there’s one word in all of American history whose meaning should be fixed and singular, it should be “United States”. And yet, in my lifetime, that word has been completely redefined at least three times. It’s had (at least) three definitions for 44 years; no definition at all for 10 years; and a completely new, single definition for the past five years.
You can’t view the repeated changes in meaning of the term “United States” over the past 69 years, without recognizing that enormous significance of definitions and the fact that the government routinely changes definitions in order to secretly change the law. What has the term “United States Code” meant in a world where the meaning of the term “United States” has repeatedly changed over the past 69-years?
If you think the bastards in Washington DC aren’t changing the definitions of words in order to change the meaning of established laws and thereby secretly expand their power or reduce their liabilities, you be dumb.
“The Power to Define Offenses”
If you’d like more evidence of the power of definitions, consider Section 1.04 (Territorial Jurisdiction) of the Texas Penal Code. Subsection (d) declares:http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/txstatutes/PE/1/1/1.04
“(d) This state includes the land and water and the air space above the land and water over which this state has power to define offenses.”
According to the Supreme Court Case of Texas vs White (A.D. 1869), each State of the perpetual Union includes: 1) fixed territory; 2) state government; and 3) the “people” of the particular State. But if the State is invaded and loses some of its territory, it is still a State of the Union. If the government of the State of the Union is destroyed or captured, the “State” still exists. So long as there are any “people of the State,” the State still exists.
It’s true that Section 1.04(d) of the Texas Penal Code (above) does not precisely define “this state”. It tells us what “this state includes,” but it does not tell us what “this state means”.
Still, it’s interesting that while “The State of Texas” includes a fixed territory, State government, and the People of The State of Texas, the seeming definition of “this state” includes no “people” but does include a “territory” composed of land, water, and air.
It’s even more interesting that, unlike the fixed territory established by the borders of “The State of Texas,” the territorial limits of “this state” do not necessarily end at the Rio Grande to the south or Red River to the north. Instead, the territorial jurisdiction of “this state” extends to any place (even on the Moon or Mars) where “this state has power to define offense.”
“this state” exists anywhere and everywhere where “this state” can “define offenses”. If you accept the definitions or any subject that are provided by “this state,” you are subject to its territorial jurisdiction—even if you’re on the Moon.
Conversely, it appears that if you embrace definitions that are not provided by “this state,” you may not be subject to the territorial jurisdiction of “this state”.
Think about that.
Whether you are or are not subject to the territorial jurisdiction of “this state” will depend on whichever dictionary you rely on. It’s like something out of Alice In Wonderland.
(Incidentally, I was first alerted to a code in the Oregon state codes back about A.D. 2000. At the time, the whole hypothesis that there was both an entity named “The United States of America” (as created and defined in the Articles of Confederation) and another entity name “United States” seemed mind-boggling. Today, that same hypothesis seems almost too obvious to be denied.
In any case, I've seen the text in the Texas Penal Code 1.04(d) that offers a glimpse into the nature of “this state” and also in the Oregon codes (I no longer recall where) that offered an almost identical description. I suspect that you can find a similar description of “this state” in the code sections of every other “state of the United States”. Hard to tell where the description of “this state” might be found, but if you start by looking for “Territorial Jurisdiction” or “Territory” in your state codes you’ll probably find a comparable text.
One other point: note that “this state” appears to be a “territory” or is “territorial” in nature. This is consistent with the suspicion that “this state” can be reasonably described as a “territory” or a “territorial state” that is “of the United States”.)
“The United States of America” vs “United States”
I believe that “this state” signifies an administrative state or territory “of the United States” that is quite different from “The State of Texas”—a member-State of the perpetual Union styled “The United States of America”.
If you’re “in this state,” you are presumed to be a subject or perhaps even an animal with virtually no meaningful rights. You are not one of the “people”. “This state” may include some citizens, inhabitants, occupants, animals, persons or even residents—but I doubt that it includes any “people”. If you can effectively and persistently define yourself as one of the “people” of your State of the Union, I think you may have created a high hurdle for “this state” to overcome before they can lawfully claim personal jurisdiction over you.
If you’re within “The State of Texas,” you have God-given, unalienable Rights and are therefore a “sovereign”.
In “this state” you have servitude. Within “The State,” you have liberty. The difference in the “plane” in which you are presumed to act and be held accountable appears to be determined primarily by the definitions you use or accept.
According to Section 1.04(d) of the Texas Penal Code, one of the primary attributes of “this state” is its “power to define offenses.” From that, it seems reasonable to infer that if we could effectively challenge, refute or perhaps merely refuse to consent to the definitions used by the officers or employees of “this state,” we might not be subject to the “territorial jurisdiction” of “this state”.
Thus, your access to Liberty might depend on your ability to understand, use and even master, “defintions”.
Notice and Right of Inquiry
As I’ve written in 25 previous articles dealing with my hypothesis concerning the concept of notice, notice is one of two components (the other is “opportunity to be heard”) that comprise procedural due process. There’s not much that the courts “of this state” are absolutely obligated to give us other than procedural due process.
“Procedural due process” is dangerous because the second component (“opportunity to be heard”) appears to be an administrative proceeding that recognizes very few of your supposed rights. The “opportunity to be heard” can be more aptly described as an “opportunity to be found guilty” because you will be found guilty in that “opportunity” about 98% of the time.
I believe that, if you’re smart, you’ll try to avoid the “opportunity to be heard”.
I believe that “opportunity” can be avoided by an astute response to the gov-co’s preliminary notice.
So far as I can see, virtually every conflict with the de facto government begins with a notice. That notice is usually written on paper, but might also include a gold-fringed flat in a courtroom or on a police officer’s uniform. Notice might even include the flashing lights on a cop car or ambulance that give notice that some “emergency” (and consequent suspension of law) is taking place.
In this article, I’m only going to write about the notices that we receive from gov-co that are written on paper.
By law, notices need not provide a complete list of all relevant facts and relevant law. They need only provide sufficient information to put the recipient “on inquiry”. I.e., a notice creates your right to ask questions about the facts and law that are relevant to the allegations of the particular notice.
I’m convinced that whenever “this state” sends you a Notice, you can respond by: 1) making statements (which proves you’ve had sufficient notice); 2) go silent (which proves you’ve had sufficient notice); or 3) ask questions about the Notice (which proves that you have not yet received sufficient notice).
Virtually everyone responds to governmental notices by either making statements or going silent. Either response will be presumed to be evidence that the recipient has received sufficient notice and (under procedural due process) can therefore now be taken to the “opportunity to be heard” where the recipient will be found guilty about 98% of the time.
However, if you don’t want the “opportunity to be heard/found guilty,” you should not respond to governmental notices with statements or silence. You should respond with questions.
So far as I can see, so long as you have questions about any of the notices sent you by “this state,” you have not received “sufficient notice” and cannot be lawfully taken to the “opportunity to be heard/sentenced”. Once you ask some question, if the entity that sent the notice doesn’t answer them, you will have been denied procedural due process and the court will lose jurisdiction over the matter.
If all of this speculation is roughly correct, it implies that if you can ask questions about government notices that are so insightful and astute that government can’t or won’t answer them, the gov-co may be estopped from proceeding against you. I.e., if they can’t answer all of your questions, they can’t provide sufficient notice and therefore can’t proceed to the “opportunity to be heard/sentenced”.
Multiplication, That’s the Name of the Game
Let’s suppose I wrote a two-word sentence such as “I do.”
Let’s suppose there were two possible definitions for the word “I” and three possible definitions for the word “do”.
To calculate how many possible meanings there might be for that two-word sentence, we multiply the number of possible definitions for the word “I” (2) times the number of possible definitions for the word “do” (3) and discover that the product is 6. 2 x 3 = 6.
In theory, we might have six possible meanings for the two-word sentence “I do”. Which of those six meanings it the one intended by the writer or speaker? Which of those six possible meanings is the one presumed by the reader/hearer?
What happens if the writer/speaker who wrote/said “I do” intended that sentence to mean its second possible meaning, but the reader/hearer “understood” that sentence to carry possible meaning #4? Certainly, there’d be confusion and “failure to communicate”.
In fact, if we stopped to analyze and list all the possible meanings for our two-word sentence, the amount of time needed to ascertain that the writer and the reader, the speaker and the hearer, had a common and agreed to meaning for even a two-word sentence would make normal communication practically impossible.
We might get around this problem if the writer/speaker expressly asked the reader/hearer, “Do you understand?” If the reader/hearer said “Yes, I understand,” we might have something like an oral contract whereby the reader/hearer decided to dispense with all the questions that he might ask about which precise meaning was intended in the sentence used by the writer/speaker—and simply agreed/contracted to accept whatever meaning was intended by the writer/speaker—regardless of whether the reader/hearer truly understood the precise, intended meaning or not.
If we could squeeze six possible meanings out of a 2-word sentence, how many possible meanings could we squeeze out of a 10-word sentence, or a 100-word paragraph?
So, let’s suppose that you’re being threatened by the gov-co with being taxed, fined or imprisoned “in this state”. Those threats would come to you in the form of a notice.
That notice would be composed of words. Virtually all of those words would have multiple definitions.
Although you might think you understand the meaning of that notice, given the multiplicity of definitions for each of most words used in that notice, it might be almost impossible to accurately discern the true meaning of even one sentence of that Notice.
For example, let’s suppose that the first sentence in the gov-co’s notice was comprised of just five words. If we look up the meanings of those five words in a decent dictionary, we might discover that the first word has three possible definitions; the second word has two; the third has one; the fourth has four; and the fifth has three.
You might presume that that sentence contains only one possible meaning. But, technically, based on the multiplicity of definitions for each word, you’d be wrong.
In fact, that particular five-word sentence could have 72 different meanings.
We could find the total number of possible meanings by multiplying the number of possible definitions for each word used in that sentence (3 x 2 x 1 x 4 x 3 = 72).
Of course, many (probably most) of those 72 possible meanings for our five-word sentence would be irrational, nonsensical, or outright incomprehensible. Even so, it’s virtually certain that several of the possible meanings would be rational, sensible and comprehensible.
What happens if, out of the list of 72 possible meanings for the five-word sentence, gov-co used that sentence for the purpose of communicating the idea expressed by possible meaning #33. What if you read that same sentence to communicate the idea conveyed by possible meaning #14 (out of the 72 potential meanings)? Was there a meeting of the minds if government intended to the sentence to mean #33 but you read it to mean #14? Could there be a contract? An agreement? Even an “understanding”?
What happens if gov-co knowingly exploits the multiplicity of definitions of words to send you a five-word sentence that they know you will almost certainly read as possible meaning #14, while the government actually means #33 when the send it? What happens if you agree to “understand” the sentence as meaning #14 (which is harmless to you) but government accepts your agreement and/or “understanding” in relation to meaning #33 (which might land you in prison)?
Complex and confusing questions—no?
In fact, when you consider the implications of having multiple definitions for words, the fact that we can communicate at all seems both mysterious and miraculous.
Reading is Guessing
Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan (a Canadian college English professor) wrote the Gutenberg Galaxy (A.D. 1962) and Understanding Media (A.D. 1964). Those two books precipitated a “great leap forward” in our understanding of communication “media”—books, radio, movies, TV, etc.
Wikipedia describes McLuhan in part as follows:
“Herbert Marshall McLuhan, (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual. His work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.
“McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and the “global village,” and for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. Although he was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years after his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. With the arrival of the internet, however, interest in his work and perspective has renewed.”
Although some of his ideas remain “controversial,” Marshal McLuhan was a giant in the sparsely populated word of “communication theory” and is arguably an “authority” on the subject.
“Communication theory” includes the subject of definitions.
Back in the 1960s, I knew that that McLuhan’s books were communicating important and revolutionary ideas. I tried to read at least one of his books, but I lacked sufficient intelligence and/or education to understand his ideas.
Nevertheless McLuhan has set in the back of my mind for the past fifty years. So, when I recently stumbled upon a couple of YouTube videos of McLuhan’s interviews from the 1960s and 1970s, I had to watch.
First, I viewed a 45-minute interview from A.D. 1977. I liked McLuhan in this interview. He reminded me a little of David Niven. He seemed intelligent, fun, whimsical. At times I couldn’t tell if he was still just too smart for me, or if he was just baffling me with his BS. He struck me as 80% genius and 20% Wizard of Oz spouting “big words” like “ipso facto” and “e pluribus unum”.
Then I watched an earlier video from A.D. 1968 of McLuhan debating Norman Mailer. I didn’t like McLuhan in this interview. He still seemed 80% genius, but he also seemed 20% pompous ass. He acted as if he were trying with all his might to sound impressive.
Nevertheless, I was electrified when, at 4:40 into this 28 minute video, McLuhan explained to Mailer that the root of the original meaning of the word “read” (as in “I can read books by Norman Mailer.”) was “to guess”.
“Read” originally meant “to guess”?!
How could that be? Made no sense. What’s reading and guessing have to do with each other?
Words have multiple definitions. Therefore, whenever we read, we “guess” at whichever of the several definitions that apply to a particular word was intended by the author of whatever text we’re reading. As we read quickly, we also guess quickly at the meaning of each word.
The very idea that we quickly guess at intended meanings of words as we read (or even hear) is mind-boggling. Do you realize how much complexity must be wired into our brains to allow us to quickly, silently and usually subconsciously guess at the meaning of each word we hear or read?
The concept is almost too fantastic to be believed.
And yet, it’s the absolute and inevitable implication of words having multiple definitions and sentences having multiple possible meanings.
To communicate is to guess at definitions and guess at meanings.
To communicate is to guess.
That equivalence may seem too bizarre to be true, but the first time I heard McLuhan express the idea, I knew: 1) he was absolutely right; and 2) the entire legal system is vulnerable.
For five years or more, I've understood the confusion that’s inherent in multiple definitions for words. But it never crossed my mind that we work around those multiple definitions by guessing.
After hearing McLuhan equate reading to guessing, I picked up my A.D. 1828 Webster’s Dictionary to see if the root for the word “read” was “guess”. In fact, that dictionary traces the root of the word “read” to a score or more of sources. But, sure enough, one of those sources is “guess”.
To read is to “guess”.
Not because I say so, but because one of the giants (Marshall McLuhan) of 20th century communication theory said so.
And also because logic makes the similarity of reading to “guessing” almost impossible to refute.
Given the multiplicity of definitions for most words, what else could it be?
Ah don’ unnerstan’
By explaining the relationship between “read” and “guess,” McLuhan not only clarified my own understanding of “reading,” “talking” and communication—he provided me with an authority (McLuhan, himself) to argue in court that “I don’t understand”.
Can a case against me proceed in court, if “I don’t understand”?
Mark Coker recently sent the following email. Part of the email deals with Coker’s latest confrontation with the cops. Part of it recounts someone else’s confrontation with a judge. Both stories involve whether suspects, offenders, and defendants understand what the cops and courts are saying.
The email is a little long and a little funny, but it makes a point. It’s worth reading (guessing).
“I thought amongst Dan Schinzing recent dying and Robert Fox being recently deported and slandered by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, you might enjoy some ‘good news’ for the day.
“I’m not so sure ‘good news’ is the correct name, but perhaps ‘interesting incident’ might be more appropriate.
“It so happened that I was (allegedly) speeding through an (alleged) school zone (not in the church auto, but a friend’s auto), when I noted behind me was a large Police SUV with his emergency lights on. Of course, wanting to assist in the emergency, I pull over to help.
“The cop comes up and asks me for ‘Driver License and proof of insurance’. . . to which I said, ‘No, I don’t have any of that stuff.’
“He gets out his notebook and asks for my name.
“And, without my even thinking about it, and contrary to my pre-planned-‘know-nothing’-plan for my next arrest, out of my own mouth came my (slave) name. As soon as I said it, I was a bit surprised at my confession. Here’s why:
“The police need you to be a witness against yourself. They have nothing. They want everything. And they want YOU to provide ALL the evidence.
“The first thing they want is your name. They second is when that entity was birthed into their commercial venue. The third thing they want is additional proof of your contract in the form of a DL.
“My plan for my next arrest was to not know ANYTHING.
“After much pondering, I thought about the value of a video that made it’s rounds about two or three years ago where a guy in court responded to all questions and statements with, ‘I don’t understand what you’re asking,’ ‘Could you repeat the question?’ and sometimes, ‘Do you mean that…uh…I don’t understand the question.’
“That’s how he responded even when they asked his name. It didn’t matter the question. In fact, even when the judge blew up and lost his cool and said to the counsel present, something to the effect of ‘This guy is an idiot! He doesn’t understand anything!’ the guy responded, ‘I don’t understand what you’re asking’ . . . to which the judge lost it even more, screaming, ‘It wasn’t a question! I made a statement! . . . And I was talking to counsel, not to you!’ . . . to which the guy retorted, and with brilliant deadpan character, ‘Could you repeat the question?’
“Ha! The judge just about blows a blood vessel. It was one hilarious video, but many, . . . probably most, . . . just thought the guy was an idiot when, in fact, he was likely studied well above the average judge or lawyer.
“THEY CAN’T CONVICT SOMEONE WHO DOESN'T UNDERSTAND. It’s in every judge’s Bench Book. This may be meant to protect those of low intelligence as well as those who have sincerely held beliefs that whatever is alleged to be illegal is, in fact, perfectly lawful according to their Supreme Law Giver.
“So think about it—Do you really know what someone might be asking when they ask you a question, even for your ‘name’? Are they asking for the Corporate name? Your family name? nick name? . . . or something else?
“There is NO WAY YOU CAN KNOW. Every question brings forth more questions in your mind that you should be asking. Why would you presume you understand? It’s impossible to KNOW what they are asking.
“[By the way, I'm still offering $50 for whoever can find that You Tube video...which I think the email was titled ‘Man doesn't understand’]
“. . . but I digress, because the LORD’s hand must have guided me at this stop to do something different, for whatever reason, and my name came out before I could follow my pre-planned-“know-nothing” script. I never got nervous in my spontaneous interaction today. And, as usual, I prepared for the worst. But rather than give the guy a hard time and call the sheriff on him for threatening me with a gun (I really enjoy the Randy Kelton approach because it is so much fun), I just went with an inner feeling which seemed to be saying ‘try to be pleasant’ [...not an easy task for me in the presence of professional thugs & extortionists].
“So the cop says, ‘Birthdate?’ . . . to which I said, ‘I don’t really know, but the one you’ll show in the computer is blah, blah blah.’
“He goes to his car a few minutes. I call the car owner and let them know I may go to jail, and they may need to get their car if they hear me being arrested on the phone.
“The cop comes back and says, “Mr. Coker, did you know your license shows to be suspended?” I said, ‘No, I didn’t even know I had one.’
“You can tell something is perplexing or troubling the cop. He says, ‘let me go back and read it again,’ and he goes to the car again.
“No backups are arriving . . . which is kind of unusual in itself.
“He comes back a few minutes later and says, ‘You know, I don’t even feel like messing with this one,’ and puts his hands up. ‘DPS doesn’t have any entry dates and it’s all screwed up, so I’m not even going to mess with it. Have a good day.’
“So off I go without arrest or even a ‘Non assumpsit’ qualified signature on a ticket to appear. . . . (or, more correctly, to not appear).
“Since most of my last 6-8 traffic stops have produced similar results (excepting Parker County), here is what I think may have happened:
“A couple or three years back, I wrote the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and told them by Affidavit that I made a mistake on my DL information regarding my birth date. I asked them to correct the information in their data base and all subsequently related accounts. I also informed them that though this mistake continued to cause me harm, that I no longer had a physical DL to send back to them, but that I wanted the DL cancelled, and I had no intent to renew it in the future.
“So my thought is that their system might attempt to reflect this correction . . . OR . . . It might just say, Coker is non-violent, but he does have a propensity to arrest officers before they can arrest him causing much confusion, lost time and revenue . . . OR . . . ‘Do Not Hold – Coker wastes extreme amounts of revenue and never pays anything – worst customer rating.’
“Actually, I have no idea what DPS data base might say, other than the clues the cop mentioned today. But the good news is that those who follow the Supreme Law Giver are favored . . . and I am still free to enjoy my liberty and cats tonight . . . and make some money tomorrow.”
I just love a happy ending, don’t you?
Failure to Communicate
I've never read a “Judges’ Handbook,” so I can’t verify that (as per the previous email) the courts “CAN’T CONVICT SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T UNDERSTAND”. (It would be helpful if any of you readers/guessers have access to a “Judge’s Handbook” and can add comments to this post to confirm or deny that they can’t convict someone who “doesn’t understand”.)
However, I and others have suspected for at least 20 years that when a judge asks “Do you understand the charges against you?,” the judge isn't merely asking if you “understand” the charges in the intellectual sense (definition) of comprehending those charges.
Instead, it appears that when the judge ask if you “understand” he’s using a different definition of the word “understand” that he knows that you are too ignorant to know, imagine or suspect. Although I can’t prove it, when judge asks if you “understand the charges,” I doubt that he’s asking if you “comprehend” the charges. I believe he’s using the word “understand” in in the sense/definition of “Do you agree and consent to be subject to (or surety for) these charges?”
If this suspicion is valid, it’s evidence that the courts are exploiting the multiplicity of definitions of words (in this case, of the word “understand”) to trick and deceive defendants into agreeing to accept a personal liability that otherwise can’t be compelled.
Sounds nuts, doesn’t it?
How could it possibly be that you don’t have to pay your taxes, pay traffic tickets or even go to prison unless you unwittingly “do something” (perhaps, “understand”?) that allows the courts to presume that you’ve consented or agreed to be punished. And maybe that idea is nuts.
Still, if I recall correctly, back in the 1980s, Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork may have said something like, “No one is in prison today who didn’t volunteer to go.” Based on a brief search on the internet, I can’t yet prove that Bork really said that, but I did find several other websites that agreed the Bork did say something like that in past.
However unlikely, let’s suppose that Robert Bork (or some other judge) observed that “no one is in prison who didn’t volunteer to go”. A statement like that from a highly-placed judge would at least be consistent with the possibility that you can’t be compelled to be fined, imprisoned or otherwise punished “in this state” unless you “understand” the charges and thereby agree/volunteer to be punished.
I can’t yet prove that a defendant’s refusal to “understand” might remove him from legal liability “in this state,” but there are at least enough anecdotes to suggest that might be so.
Nobody Wants to Admit His Ignorance
Most of us don’t ever want to admit that we’re so ignorant that we don’t “understand”/comprehend the charges against us. Therefore, when the judge asks “Do you understand the charges against you?,” we nod wisely and answer Yes.
After all, my mom didn't raise any morons, did she? (Well, none except for my two brothers and my older sister.) But, I’m the smart one, see—so when the court asks if I “understand,” I’ll say “Yes”.
In fact, I might even answer, “Of course, I understand, yer Honorableness! Heck, I’m s’ darn smart I even attended some classes at the junior college. . . . I almost passed a couple of ‘em.”
Having thus established my intellectual credentials and shown the judge that I’m no mere “public school graduate,” I can be confident that the judge now respects (maybe even fears) my intellect and will give me nothing but the best procedural due process that money can buy.
Or maybe not.
In fact, having seen evidence of my “formidable” intellect, the judge is probably doing all he can to suppress his laughter at yet another defendant who thinks he’s smart but is actually dumb as a box of rocks. The silly-assed defendant doesn’t even know about “multiple definitions” and the dangers they present. The silly-assed defendant can’t even imagine that while he assumes the word “understand” is being used to mean “comprehend,” the judge is actually using “understand” to mean “agree”.
If this conjecture is correct, when the “smart” defendant answers Yes to “Do you understand the charges against you?” it appears that the defendant may have thereby unwittingly agreed and consented to be fined, jailed or imprisoned according to the judge’s “discretion” based on an obligation that the court might not be able to otherwise impose.
A Second Anecdote
In A.D. 2002, I was arrested without warrant here on Texas and extradited to Missouri based on two fraudulent changes of failure to pay child support. Each charge was a felony carrying a potential prison sentence of 5 years. In theory, I could’ve been sentenced to 10 years in the slammer. In fact, if the case had gone to trial and I was convicted, I would probably have been sentenced to only 90 to 180 days.
They held me for a total of 344 days and finally released me without even giving me a probable cause hearing. So far as I know, I was never actually charged with any crime. I absolutely know that I was not tried for a crime or convicted of a crime. They wouldn't even let me enter the courtroom.
I believe the primary technical reason that they couldn't proceed against me was that I signed all documents (including my waiver of extradition) “at arm’s length” and thereby established that I would only appear in a non-fiduciary capacity.
But, shortly after I was first brought into that Missouri jail, a judge held some sort of arraignment and asked if I “understood the charges against me”.
I answered, “No, I don’t understand the charges.”
The judge seemed flustered. He said, “Well, I think you understand the charges.”
I replied, “No, I don’t.”
“Well, I think you do.”
“I do not understand the charges.”
This dialogue repeated itself several times and continued even as the guard was dragging me out of the arraignment hearing room. The judge was still saying, “I think you do,” and I was hollering back over my shoulder, “I do not!”
I won’t argue that my refusal to “understand the charges” was a determinative factor in their inability to prosecute me.
But I will argue that the judge’s repeated attempts to “insist” that I “understood the charges” is evidence that something important takes place whenever we agree that we “understand the charges”. The judge’s persistent attempts to get me to agree (or at least allow the presumption that I agreed) that I “understood” the charges is at least evidence that the courts need defendants to agree that that that they “understand” the charges as a prerequisite for proceeding against the defendant.
My story proves nothing. It’s only an anecdote.
But I saw it happen. It’s not some theory I've come up with. It’s not a story told by a third party that I’m merely repeating as hearsay.
I saw it.
It might not be proof, but it is evidence that the courts may not be able to proceed against us, unless we agree that we “understand the charges”.
But, given that virtually all words have multiple definitions and given that reading (or even hearing) words involves our capacity to “guess” at the meanings of words and sentences, you can see (and argue) that it’s virtually impossible for any defendant to truly “understand” (comprehend) any charge against him without first comprehending whichever particular definition the judge (or cop) uses for every word used to communicate the charges.
Once a defendant demonstrates that he can’t possibly understand/comprehend the charges against him, the judge will be placed in a position where he must either admit that the defendant does not understand/comprehend the charges and therefore can’t be tried—or the judge will have to admit that the defendant’s “comprehension” is irrelevant; that the word “understand” is being used in the sense of “agree” and “consent”—and that the trial for an offense “in this state” cannot proceed without the defendant’s “understanding” (agreement/consent).
Is this overly long article finally beginning to make some sense?
Are you beginning to “understand” (comprehend) the potential significance of the conjecture that I’m providing?
I’m trying to show the reasons why a defendant can rationally argue that he does not “understand” the charges. I’m trying to show that “not understanding” is not just some “goofy” patriot theory. I’m trying to show that, properly comprehended and argued, it’s reasonable to conclude that virtually no one can truly “understand” the charges insofar as the word “understand” is intended to mean “comprehend”.
Thus, once you argue that you don’t and can’t “understand” the charges because you can’t “guess” what definition is attached to each word used by the court and/or government, the judge is put between the rock (accepting the fact that you don’t “comprehend” the charges and therefore the court may not be able to proceed against you) and the hard place (admitting on the public that the intended meaning of the word “understand” is not to “comprehend” but rather to “agree with and consent to”).
What’s the judge going to do?
I don’t know.
But, assuming it’s true that we must agree and consent to the “charges” before we can be prosecuted, I don’t believe for one minute that any judge will admit that truth on the record. I.e., if the word got out that the courts of “this state” need your consent before they can prosecute you, the whole damn legal system would collapse. Who will knowingly “consent” to be “charged” by the courts? Nobody.
A Third Anecdote
It was probably about eight years ago when I and several others listened to Dessie Andrews—a legal reform activist at Austin, Texas—tell a story.
Dessie had two adult sons also who knew something about the law. Her sons (like a lot of us) knew (or at least suspected) that “something strange happened” whenever the judge asked if you “understood” the charges and you answered, Yes. They didn't know exactly what happened at that moment, but they knew the judge wasn't simply asking if they “comprehended” the charge. They knew if they answered Yes, they’d probably be found guilty.
So when one of Dessie’s sons was brought into court for some misdemeanor (probably a traffic offense) and the judge asked if he “understood” the charges, the son said “No—I do not understand the charges . . . .”
And then, before the judge could respond, Dessie’s son added, “Do you understand the charges?” Her son had no reason to ask that question. He didn’t plan to ask it. He just blurted it out based on nothing but impulse.
According to Dessie (who was present at the hearing), the judge just about fell off the bench trying to avoid admitting that he “understood” the charges. According to Dessie, the judge stammered and struggled for words to deny that he “understood” the charges.
By this time, all of us listening to Dessie’s story were roaring with laughter.
The story continued.
The judge regained his composure. He fenced with Dessie’s son for a few minutes and then came back to the fundamental question: “Do you understand the charges against you?”
Once again, Dessie’s son answered “No, I do not understand”—and this time, without hesitation or impulse, he again asked the judge if he “understood the charges”.
Again, the judge reportedly back-peddled so “fast and furious” that you might’ve thought he was a circus act. “No, no—I don’t understand the charges!,” said the judge.
Dessie’s story was hilarious. Everyone was laughing. I became diverted and I never heard the ending of her story. So, I don’t know that the charges against Dessie’s son were dropped because he denied “understanding” them.
But I have no doubt that the story, even though only an anecdotal, was true and supports the suspicion that judges use the word “understand” with a definition that is unknown and unimagined by 99.99% of the alleged defendants.
More, Dessie’s story implies that whoever “understands” the charges is the one who’s going to be held liable for those charges.
If the defendant doesn’t “understand” and the judge doesn’t “understand,” then let’s ask the prosecutor if he “understands” the charges. If the prosecutor is young and ignorant and admits on the record that he “understands” (agrees to accept) the charges, then let’s move the court to impose the fine or prison time on the prosecutor. That should be fun. I’d bet that case would be dismissed.
If the prosecutor were also smart enough to deny “understanding” the charges, then the defendant might move to have the charges dropped since neither he, the judge nor the prosecutor “understands” (comprehends) the charges.
What’s the judge going to do? Faced with an express statement (on the record) that “understand the charges” merely means to “comprehend” the charges (and neither defendant, judge or prosecutor will admit to “comprehending” the charges) will the judge admit on the public record that he and the prosecutor are using “understand the charges” with a definition that the public doesn’t know or expect? Will the judge admit on the record that he’s not using the word “understand” to mean “comprehend,” but is instead using “understand” to signify “agree”?
I don’t think so.
Again, that case might be dismissed if the defendant can’t or refuses to “understand”.
Let’s suppose you were an alleged defendant in court, the judge asked if you “understand the charges against you,” you answered No, and then tried to justify your inability/refusal to “understand” based on the necessity to “guess” at the meaning of the “charges” and/or the judge’s statements and questions.
The judge will almost certainly try to talk you out of that line of defense. He’ll try to bamboozle you. Even if this line of defense is valid, if you lose confidence and surrender to the force of the judge’s intellect or apparent power, the court will jump over your line of defense, and prosecute you for whatever charges are claimed.
It’s reportedly happened that when some defendants have refused to “understand,” the judge has ordered them shipped off for mental health care as if such refusal constituted evidence of mental illness. Can the threat of being treated for mental illness be defeated? Maybe. But if that threat were made, I’d bet that the most reliable line of defense would be to have introduced an affidavit into the court record before the case comes to court that rationally explains why you can’t “understand” the charges. Once that evidence was on the record, it would be much more difficult for the judge to rationalize sending you to some mental health facility for a 90-day “tune-up”.
But I’m going to speculate that one argument a judge might try against a defendant who refused to “understand” might run something like this:
Judge: Do you understand the charges against you?
Defendant: I do not understand the charges because I can only guess at whatever definitions are attached to the words of the charges.
Judge: But you “understand” the meanings of statements and questions posed by your friends, the authors you read and the TV programs you watch, don’t you? You have no problem with “guessing” at what the definitions of the words may be then—so why do you have a problem allegedly “guessing” at the definitions of the words that comprise the “charges” in this case?
Defendant: I’m more than willing to “guess” at the definitions of the words used by my friends, authors of the books and articles I read, and TV shows I watch—and thereby agree and consent to their apparent meaning—so long as those words do not create legal liability for me. I’m happy to “shoot the breeze” with anyone and “guess” at their intended meanings—so long as that “breeze” does not create any legal liability for me. I.e., I’m willing and happy to “guess” at the definitions of words so long as a mistake in my “guessing” won’t cause me to be fined or imprisoned.
However, it would be imprudent for me to merely “guess” at whichever of the various definitions might apply to words used in “charges” against me, if those charges might cause me to suffer a fine or imprisonment.
It would also be unreasonable, unfair and unjust for the court to force me to “guess” at whichever particular definition is being used for each of the words used to describe the alleged “charges against me”. It would be unreasonable, unfair and unjust to expect me to accept liability to charges based not on my actual conduct in this matter, but based on my ability to accurately “guess” the definitions of each of the words used to charge me. I.e., by falsely or mistakenly claiming to understand charges, I might be fined or imprisoned not for having committed a crime, but for having failed to accurately guess whatever definition was intended by the charges and/or the court.
It would even be unreasonable, unfair and unjust for the court to try to coerce me into admitting and/or consenting to “understanding” the charges by means of threats to send me off for mental health care when it’s unreasonable and even irrational to suppose that I do or could comprehend those charges unless I was expressly informed of each definition of each word used and intended by the charging authority to specify the “charges” against me.
Likewise, it would be contrary to my own best interests to consent or agree to “understand the charges against me” if the court was using the word “understand” to mean “agree or consent to” rather than “comprehend”.
In case of either definition of “understand” (comprehend or consent to), I cannot be expected to truthfully answer that I do “understand the charges against me”.
What’s the judge going to say then—especially if an argument similar to the one I've just presented was already entered into the court record?
I’m not suggesting that a clever judge will be speechless and helpless to defeat the logic of this “I don’t understand the charges” defense.
But I am suggesting that this judge will have to be extremely shrewd, and even then, his counter-argument will have to be expressed in words whose definitions are usually multiple and can therefore only be guessed at by the defendant. Thus, I can’t be expected to risk “understanding” anything the judge says, so long as each of his words aren't specifically defined and a mistaken “guess” as to his intended meaning could cause me to be fined or imprisoned.
I don’t expect this line of defense to work well or for long.
I suspect that this line of defense as so fundamental and powerful that the entire legal system might collapse if this defense were allowed to establish itself.
Nevertheless, I believe this “refusal to understand” line of defense is logical, true and almost impossible to honestly resist.
It’s going to make ‘em roll their eyes for a while.
In the end, the only way I can see for the legal system to defeat his line of defense is to change the laws so the courts need not ask if defendants “understand” the charges. But for that to happen, the laws will have to changed to allow us to be prosecuted regardless of whether we comprehend or consent to the charges. To be charged will be tantamount with conviction. I don’t think the system is ready to devolve into such a totalitarian police state—at least not yet.
A Few More Notes
Here are a couple more applications and/or implications of need to “guess” at the meanings of words:
1. “Ignorance of the law” may be a perfect excuse since the law cannot be known, unless we also know whichever of the several possible definitions of each word was intended by the legislature when they enacted the particlar “law”. As I’ve written repeatedly, “definitions are the ‘law’ of the ‘law’.”
Ignorance of any allegation can be eliminated by simply asking relevant questions about the notice of those allegations. If the officers and employees of “this state” refuse to answer your questions about the definitions used for each of the words in one of their notices, it might be argued that you are ignorant of the law, but your ignorance is caused by the officers/employees of “this state” who refuse to answer your questions about whatever notice(s) they sent to you.
I.e., as authors of whatever notice you receive, the individual or agency that sent you the notice should be able and willing to define the words they used in their notice. If they can’t or won’t define the meanings of the words they've used, you are forced to “guess” at those meanings and therefore can’t possible know what the notice means. Thus, you can’t react to any notice except with questions—including questions about the definitions of the words used. If they won’t specify their definitions, you would seem to be deprived of the first element of procedural due process (notice & opportunity to be heard), and the court would theoretically lose jurisdiction over the case.
If the judge tells you to hire an attorney to answer your questions about definitions, the attorney can’t answer those questions since he was not a legislator who voted for the particular law. I.e., the only people who might truly know the intended definition of each word used in a law are the lawgivers, themselves—the legislators.
Like defendants, attorneys, judges and even juries can only “guess” at the legislators’ intended definitions for each word comprising a law. This argument is born out by Supreme Court policy for deciding the meaning of a law when the relevant text is “ambiguous” (there are two or more possible definitions for words used). The Supreme Court reads whatever records or documents were associated with enacting the particular law that give a clue to the “intent” of the legislature. That “intent” will be deemed to show whichever definitions of the words used in the law were “intended” by the legislators (authors of the text of the law).
Insofar as the Supreme Court recognizes the need to discover “congressional intent” whenever the meaning of a word or phrase in a law is ambiguous (two or more possible meanings and definitions), the Supreme Court implicitly admits the validity of the “refusal to understand charges” strategy presented in this article.
2. The power to define offenses. If “this state” (as in Texas Penal Code 1.04(d), supra) has the “power to define offenses,” “this state” must also have an obligation to expressly declare whatever definitions it’s using. “This state” cannot reasonably claim the power to define offenses and the words used to describe those offenses, without also publicizing the definitions of each of the words that comprise its descriptions of “offenses”.
3. The 6th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that the “accused” shall be “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”. It may well be that the “accused” in the 6th Amendment is defined much differently than a modern “defendant”. It may well be that the “accusation” in the 6th Amendment is not synonymous with the “charges” in court prosecutions which we are asked to “understand”.
Nevertheless, if a “defendant” were to claim he was one of the people of a State of the Union and thereby entitled by the 6th Amendment to be “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” against him, wouldn't that “information” necessarily include the definitions of each the words in the “accusation” and/or “charges”?
4. Reading is guessing. The earliest definitions of the word “read” were “guess”. Marshal McLuhan, communications giant of the 20th century says “reading is guessing”, The logic of multiple definitions for individual words tells us that “reading is guessing”. Whenever the Supreme Court is forced to seek “congressional intent” to determine the meaning of a word or phrase in a law, they are trying to avoid “guessing” by discovering the exact definition intended by Congress. All of that means it’s virtually and rationally impossible to precisely “understand” (comprehend) the intent behind whatever has been written without being provided with the specific definition of each word used. That means that without being provided with the exact relevant definitions, you can’t truly “understand” (comprehend) any “charge” against you.
5. If the courts rely on defendants admitting that they “understand the charges,” can the courts proceed against a defendant who declares under oath that: 1) he can’t “understand” (comprehend) the charges against him because of the multiplicity of definitions for each word in the charges; and 2) refuses to “understand” (voluntarily consent to) the charges against him?
“Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes the laws.” Baron Meyer Rothschild
“Give me control of a nation’s definitions, and I care not who controls the nation’s money.” Alfred Adask