Saturday, July 12, 2014

If it walks like a duck . . .

State v. Brunner, 2014 VT 62

By Andrew Delaney

This is probably the first SCOV Law summary that begins with a picture. But hey, if the SCOV is going to include a picture in its opinion, aren’t we obligated to do the same in our summary?

Does that thing look like brass knuckles? I’m willing to say it does not not look like brass knuckles.

We have a statute in Vermont that prohibits possessing brass knuckles or similar weapons with intent to use them. It also prohibits a “slung shot.” Before today, I thought that was a misspelling of slingshot—it’s not. It’s a weight on the end of a strap or chain, presumably to whack at people with. No kidding.
  So . . . turns out that defendant had the thing pictured above and allegedly slashed someone’s face with it at the Tunbridge World’s Fair. He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, as well as possession of brass-knuckles-or-a-similar weapon under the statute mentioned above.

Naturally, defendant filed a motion to dismiss the possession-of-the-naughty-weapon charge, arguing that the statute doesn’t define brass knuckles, so it’s ambiguous, should be interpreted narrowly and in his favor according to the rule of lenity, and the charge should be dismissed. The trial court held a hearing on the motion.

At the hearing, the trial court saw a picture of the weapon and inspected it in chambers. The trial court’s written opinion—though far more descriptive and detailed—said essentially “looks like a duck.” The trial court noted that the weapon certainly seemed to fall within the “common meaning” of brass knuckles—that is, when held in one’s fist, it’d bump up one’s punching game. The trial court also rejected defendant’s rule of lenity argument, explaining that in order for the rule to apply, the statute has to be ambiguous, and even if the weapon wasn’t brass knuckles, it was certainly similar to them.

Defendant entered a conditional plea of no contest (or nolo contendre for you Latin lovers) to the possession-of-brass-knuckles, reserving the right to appeal that charge, and pled to an amended charge of simple assault as well.

The only question for the SCOV is whether the statute applies to the weapon. It’s mostly a question of law which the SCOV reviews de novo, though the SCOV defers to the facts as found by the trial court.

Defendant makes some pretty good arguments. There’s the brass-knuckles-isn’t-explicity-defined-and-the-plural-use-“knuckles”-implies-individual-finger-holes argument. Thus, defendant argues, the statute is in fact ambiguous and the rule of lenity should apply. He notes that there’s a far broader “dangerous weapon” statute that applies to things that aren’t singled out as “brass knuckles.” Defendant reasons that there are four blades on the device, and its primary purpose is cutting and therefore it’s really a knife. It’s just a handle and knuckle guard defendant emphasizes. And if the trial court’s reasoning stands, opines defendant, then “any object could be similar to brass knuckles if used to strengthen a punch, including a gripped coffee mug or shovel handle.” The latter observation is my favorite.

The State counters with an “other-similar-weapons”-is-intentionally-broad parry, and points to a bunch of decisions from other state courts that found a “variety of weapons” to be brass knuckles.

This is the SCOV’s first look at the brass-knuckles statute. Statutory interpretation standards should be familiar to our regular readers, but we’ll give them a quick run-through here just for kicks. First the SCOV looks to the plain meaning; it interprets penal statutes strictly, but not to the point of irrational or absurd results. The SCOV will use the rule of lenity to “resolve ambiguity in statutory language in favor of the defendant but will not apply the rule if the statute is clear and unambiguous.”

The SCOV concludes that the weapon falls within the statute’s purview. Brass knuckles, based on dictionary definitions, are “a device designed to be gripped in a clenched fist, that fits over the knuckles, and that is designed to increase the damage caused from a strike of the fist.” This weapon falls within that definition. The SCOV opines: “It is apparent from the hole for the wearer’s hand and the curves of the weapon’s design that it may be used to inflict a blow with a fist when grasped as designed. When used in this way, the wearer’s hand is protected—and the damage inflicted on the victim is increased—by seventeen sharply serrated teeth one-eighth of an inch high.”

The SCOV also isn’t swayed by defendant’s primary-purpose argument. Here, the SCOV reasons that means going down an absurd-results rabbit hole—throw a blade on them and brass knuckles are magically transformed? Not gonna do that says the SCOV.

The SCOV also rejects the it-could-be-a-“dangerous-weapon”-instead argument, noting that the “same conduct can potentially be subject to regulation under multiple statutes.” Everything in the brass-knuckles-et-al. statute could be a dangerous weapon under the other statute—they’re not mutually exclusive, and the weapon here falls into the brass-knuckles subset.

These “knuckles”—well, they “quack.” The trial court’s denial of the motion to dismiss is affirmed.

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