In an important decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court concluded a defendant cannot be convicted of possessing a loaded firearm unless he knew the firearm was loaded at the time of the possession. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Brown.
Illegal possession of a firearm in Massachusetts is a serious crime that carries a mandatory minimum 18-month jail term. There is a second statute that further punishes a defendant who is carrying a gun that is loaded. The loaded gun statute is what’s known as a sentencing enhancement provision, which means it cannot be prosecuted on its own, but it can be used to add jail time onto the defendant who was already convicted of possessing a gun. If jail time is imposed under the loaded gun statute, it is required to be served after the defendant has served the 18-month jail term on the underlying conviction.
On July 4, 2013, a State trooper pulled over the defendant’s car in Worcester County for having an inoperable tail light. The defendant’s driver’s license had been suspended and the trooper placed him under arrest. There were two other occupants in the vehicle, but neither had an active driver’s license, which meant neither could take possession of the car and drive it away. As a result, the trooper made arrangements for the car to be towed. When a vehicle is being towed, it is standard procedure for the police to search it and make an inventory of all the items in the car. Unfortunately, the inventory search in this case was catastrophic for the defendant. The trooper found a handgun in the rear console of the car, and there were five bullets in the gun’s magazine. The defendant made a series of conflicting statements about the gun, all of which suggested he knew it was in the car. A woman who was riding in the back seat of the car tried to take responsibility for the gun, claiming it was hers and she had it for her own protection. Ultimately, the jury concluded the defendant possessed the gun. He was convicted of illegal possession of a gun along with illegal possession of a loaded gun. On appeal, the defendant argued he should not have been convicted of possessing a loaded gun because there was no evidence he knew the gun was loaded.
The Appeals Court had to contend with whether the Commonwealth is charged with proving a defendant’s knowledge that his gun is loaded (a question that had never been answered by an appellate court in Massachusetts). The question caused the Appeals Court to embark on a dry analysis of statutory construction that ultimately led it to conclude the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving a defendant knows his gun is loaded in order to prove a violation of the loaded firearm statute. The Court said there were plausible arguments both in favor of and against the defendant’s contention that knowledge was an element of the crime. There is a legal principle called the Rule of Lenity, which states that if there are two opposing interpretations of a statute, courts are obligated to adopt the interpretation that favors a criminal defendant. Therefore, the defendant here will receive the benefit of the doubt and because there was no evidence the defendant knew the gun was loaded, his conviction for possessing a loaded gun will be reversed.