NYCA Addresses Interesting Mens Rea Question
Earlier this month, the New York Court of Appeals issued its decision in People v. Elliot Parrilla, in which the defendant was convicted of possession of a gravity knife under NY Penal Law § 265.02(1). That provision states that a person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree when
…[s]uch person commits the crime of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree as defined in subdivision one…of section 265.01 and has been previously convicted of any crime.
NY Penal Law § 265.01 defines Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree as follows:
A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when: (1) he or she possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, plastic knuckles, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or “Kung Fu star”; …
Both sides agreed that, to be convicted, the defendant had to knowingly possess a knife. The defense argued that the defendant also had to know that the knife he possessed was capable of being a “gravity knife.” The Court of Appeals held that he did not, and affirmed the conviction.
Interestingly, when the defendant was arrested he possessed a knife that he had bought at a large retail store in the Bronx for use in his work as a contractor/ carpenter to cut sheet rock. He testified that on the day of his arrest, he had used the knife to cut tiles, but that he opened it with two hands and had never opened it with one hand by flicking his wrist, which is what makes a knife a gravity knife. The court charged the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found he knowingly possessed a knife, did not have to find that he knew it fit the “legal description of a gravity knife,” but had to find that it did in fact fit that description. Under NY Penal Law § 265.01(5) a gravity knife is
any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.
The Court did not engage in any extended analysis: it relied on the plain language of the statute to find an intent to criminalize possession of weapons that are per se particularly dangerous. It supported this holding by pointing out that knowledge of a firearm’s operability is not an element of criminal possession of a weapon.
Arguably, under the Model Penal Law, the result would be different. Since no mens rea is specified in the statute, the MPC would require that a conviction be based on evidence that the defendant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly possessed a gravity knife, and it would apply not only to the possession element but to the attendant circumstance that what is possessed is a gravity knife.
Interestingly, again, this was one of the cases argued at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, when the Court of Appeals heard cases at the Judicial Institute. It was a fascinating argument, partly because of the fact that the knives had been legally sold by a major store chain until that chain agreed with the office of the NY County District Attorney to stop selling that item; partly because the defendant apparently did use the knife in his work, and partly because he was only arrested and charged with the weapon after he caused a ruckus with the police. Of course, those are the kinds of facts that you can learn from an oral argument or a trial, but that rarely make it into a written decision on a question of law.
- People v. Parrilla, 2016 NY Slip Op. 03417 (N.Y. 2016) (Court’s official PDF).
- Model Penal Code – Selected Provisions