In general, life goes on as normal when February 29 rolls around. The only legal issues involve computation of time. When has a year passed for someone sentenced to one year in prison if there is a leap year? Is a 365 -day sentence the same as a sentence to a year if the year has 366 days? When does a person born on February 29 turn 18? On Februray 28 or March 1? These issues are not as clearly decided as one might have thought.
In Habibi v. Holder, 673 F.3d 1082 (2011) the 9th circuit court was asked to decide if an inmate sentenced to 365 days in a leap year was eligible for deportation as a person who was sentenced to at least one year. The court concluded that one year (for purposes of 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(F)) is 365 days, even if a sentence happens to be imposed in a leap year.
In a Massachusetts decision about the length of a sentence, Comm. v. Melo , 65 Mass.App.Ct. 674 (2006), the defendant challenged the length of his incarceration, arguing that the extra days in leap years must be counted. The court determined that “Simply stated, the defendant was sentenced to a term of years, not to a term of days or months, and a calendar year is one year of the defendant’s sentence regardless of the number of days which comprises any particular year.”
Each state decides whether it counts the day of the event in computing time. Counting the day is known as the “common law rule,” and not counting the day is known as the “birthday rule.”
In Comm. v. Ulysses H., 52 Mass. App. 497, 499 n.4 (2001) the court explained “The common-law rule can be traced back to seventeenth century England and is based on
the principle that ‘a person is in existence on the day of his birth; thus, he has lived one year and one day on the first anniversary of his birth.'”
Most sources will suggest that Massachusetts follows the birthday rule, and does not count the date. For example, see Bemis v Leonard, 118 Mass. 502 (1875) “In computing time from the date, or from the day of the date, or from a certain act or event, the day of the date is to be excluded, unless a different intention is manifested by the instrument or statute under which the question arises.”
That suggests that a person born on February 29 would turn a year older on March 1. Unfortunately, it is not that straightforward here. Cases new and old have differing opinions.
Danvers v. Boston, 27 Mass. 513 (1830) “Hunt was born the 4th of April, 1745; he became twenty-one years old the 4th of April, 1766″
Comm. v. Barrett, 418 Mass. 788, 792 n.3 (1994) “The complainant was born on January 7, 1969, and attained the age of sixteen on January 7, 1985.”
Bardwell v. Purrington, 107 Mass. 419 (1871) “A person who was born on the eighth day of September 1852 would become of the full age of twenty-one years if he should live to the seventh day of that month in 1873. He would be entitled to be considered as having attained his majority at the earliest minute of that day.”
Apkin v. Treasurer and Receiver General, 401 Mass. 427 (1988) “Judge Apkin was born on January 14, 1918, and will attain the age of seventy on January 13, 1988.”, noting “Under the common law and the law of the Commonwealth, each year a person attains his or her next age on the day before the anniversary of his or her birth.”
Sadly, we are left unable to clarify the issue for leapers out there.
One other note of interest:
Holbrook, Mass. is one of only six US communities incorporated on a leap day.
For information on other time computation issues, see our Mass. Law About Time.
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