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In re State ex rel G.C.

May 04, 2004

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, IN THE INTEREST OF G.C.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 359 N.J. Super. 399 (2003).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether the crime of unlawful possession of a weapon requires that the accused knowingly possessed a weapon under circumstances indicating a likely threat of harm to a person.

On June 29, 2001, G.C., a fifteen-year-old juvenile, shot a paintball gun at an automobile parked in a driveway. According to the vehicle's owner, the paintball pellet hit the car, causing unspecified damage to it. The State charged G.C. with offenses that, if committed by an adult, would constitute criminal mischief to a motor vehicle, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and unlawful possession of a weapon. G.C. pled guilty to the unlawful possession charge, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d, which is a fourth degree offense.

At a hearing conducted by the trial court, G.C. admitted to shooting the paintball gun at the car. Although the testimony at the hearing was not clear on the question, the Court assumes that the vehicle was unoccupied at the time. Because G.C. was on probation for a prior offense of unlawful possession, he also pled guilty to violating his probation. The court committed G.C. to the custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission for one year on the weapons offense, and a concurrent two years on the probation violation.

On appeal to the Appellate Division, G.C. claimed that his guilty plea should be set aside because a paintball gun is not a "weapon" within the meaning of the statute, and further, that he did not possess the gun "under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. In a published opinion, In re G.C., 359 N.J. Super. 399 (App. Div. 2003), the Appellate Division concluded that the paintball gun is a weapon for purposes of the statute. As for the second issue, the Appellate Division concluded that there was a lack of correlation between what enabled a paintball gun to fall within the definition of a weapon under the statute and the circumstances surrounding the possession that made it manifestly inappropriate for such lawful uses it has. The court reasoned that because G.C.'s use of the paintball gun did not pose a threat of harm to a person, the juvenile's guilty plea could not be sustained.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD

G.C.'s admission to shooting the paintball gun at an unoccupied vehicle is an adequate factual basis for his plea to unlawful possession of a weapon.

1. The relevant provision of the statute provides, "Any person who knowingly has in his possession any other weapon under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. In a separate provision, "weapon" is defined as "anything readily capable of lethal use or of inflicting serious bodily injury." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1r. The Appellate Division correctly held that a person commits a fourth-degree weapons offense even though he or she might not have intended to use the object for an unlawful purpose. (pp. 5-7)

2. The Appellate Division cited to this Court's decision in State v. Lee, 96 N.J. 156 (1984), where this Court observed that the statute was intended to protect against the "threat of harm to others," and to address the problem of "protecting citizens from the threat of harm." Those statements must be viewed within the factual context of that case. There, police arrested an individual who was observed burglarizing a home. Police recovered from the defendant a pair of scissors taped at the ends, which an expert later identified at trial as being a "stiletto." On those facts, the Court held that N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d did not require proof that the defendant intended to use the stiletto for an unlawful purpose. The Court considers "harm to others" more broadly to include damage to a person's property. Given the destructive capabilities of those weapons defined by statute, the Legislature no doubt sought to prevent or curb possession of them in a wide set of circumstances. The Court finds nothing within the statute's plain language that would exclude from its purview the circumstances leading to G.C.'s plea and conviction. (pp. 7-9)

3. This construction is consistent with another statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d, which provides that the possession of any weapon, except a firearm, with the purpose to use it unlawfully against the person or property of another, is guilty of a crime of the third degree. Although there are distinctions between the two offenses, they are sufficiently related to warrant the conclusion that the Legislature intended each provision to implicate either harm to a person or damage to a person's property. The Court is persuaded that the phrase "circumstances not manifestly appropriate" in N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d contemplates either a threat of harm to a person or a threat of damage to property. Neither threat constitutes an "innocent purpose," and each falls reasonably within the statute's plain text. Because G.C.'s act of firing the paintball gun at an automobile was so clearly improper, it obviates the need to examine more fully whether he had possessed the gun under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for its lawful use. (p. 9-12)

4. In rendering its decision, the Appellate Division relied on the Model Jury Charge relating to the statute, which requires that the State prove the weapon was possessed under circumstances where it posed a likely threat of harm to others. For the reasons already stated, that aspect of the charge is incorrect. The Court directs the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges to review and revise the charge consistent with this opinion. (p. 12) Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Verniero

Argued January 20, 2004

After shooting a paintball gun at an unoccupied automobile, the juvenile in this case pled guilty to unlawful possession of a weapon, a fourth-degree offense. That offense occurs when a person knowingly possesses certain weapons "under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as [they] may have[.]" N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. Such circumstances, the Appellate Division essentially concluded, do not include the firing of a weapon at an object such as an automobile but rather require the threatening of harm to a person. Based on that conclusion, the panel set aside the juvenile's plea. We disagree and reverse.

I.

The facts are straightforward. On June 29, 2001, G.C., a juvenile who was then age fifteen, shot a paintball gun at an automobile parked in a driveway. According to a complaint filed by J.H., the vehicle's owner, the paintball pellet hit the car, causing unspecified damage to it. The State ultimately charged G.C. with offenses that, if committed by an adult, would constitute criminal mischief to a motor vehicle, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3a; possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d; and unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. G.C. subsequently pled guilty to the ...


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