What’s in a Name?


By: Jeremy W. Rogers

Oftentimes in the law, a seemingly straightforward term or name for something turns out to be not so straightforward. Common meanings need to be defined or else creative attorneys may avoid mandates set forth by statute, for instance. One example may include successful arguments against the applicability of a particular statute to his or her client. Statutes and regulations are rife with definitions that would make a layperson wonder out loud, “Why?” or “Was that really necessary?”

When not included in a statute, however, it is up to the courts to decide what a particular term or name really means, even if it seems obvious. One such situation occurred earlier this year when the Florida Supreme Court decided the definition of the term “sexual intercourse.” This question arose in a case out of the Florida Keys where a man was charged with violating § 384.42, Fla. Stat. which makes it unlawful for a person who is aware they are HIV-positive to have sexual intercourse with any other person without first informing that person of the disease. The State alleged that Gary Debaun violated the law when he had sex with another man without first disclosing he had HIV.  Mr. Debaun went a step further, it seems, and produced a forged lab report saying he was HIV-negative, although that little nugget is not really relevant to the story.  Of course, § 384.42 does not define “sexual intercourse,” and, citing to a prior authority, Mr. Debaun’s attorney successfully argued that “sexual intercourse” was limited only to “penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ.”  How very romantic. Because Mr. Debaun and his partner were both male, they did not have “sexual intercourse” under that very narrow definition. The circuit court agreed and dismissed the charges, but the Third DCA reversed, asking the Florida Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

In opposition to Mr. Debaun’s arguments once the case got this far, it was argued that the intent of the statute was not to criminalize the sexual act, but, rather, to criminalize the act of knowingly exposing one’s sexual partners to the disease. This would seem rather clear, and one wonders why there is prior authority setting forth such a narrow definition as the circuit court followed. Nevertheless, after consulting with three separate dictionaries, the Court ruled that the applicable definition is clearly more expansive than simply penile-vaginal penetration. Further reasoning, the Court noted that a more expansive definition would further the purpose and intent of the law. Thus, the Court defined “sexual intercourse” under its plain and ordinary meaning (and, as one court put it, “obvious meaning”). The definition includes penile-vaginal intercourse, anal and oral sexual activity, and is not limited to only heterosexual relations.

Who knew? (sarcasm intended)
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