'Dangerous Weapon' Not Necessarily a 'Deadly Weapon' for Purposes of Enhanced Sentencing Statute

March 24, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on March 24, 2014 1:44 PM |

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a judgment against a criminal defendant who had been sentenced by a superior court judge under the sentencing enhancement provisions of the Massachusetts Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). In relevant part, the ACCA applies to any person who has been previously and in separate instances been convicted of three violent crimes, or three serious drug offenses, or any combination of violent crimes or serious drug offenses that total three. Under the ACCA, if a person with such a criminal history is found to be in unlawful possession of a firearm under the applicable Massachusetts firearms laws, he may face a sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison. The statute defines a "violent crime" as, among other criteria, a crime that involved the use or possession of a "deadly weapon."

In Commonwealth v. Boyd, the defendant's adult criminal record included convictions for the unlicensed carrying of a firearm and unlawful possession of ammunition. However, the defendant also had juvenile convictions for assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, assault by means of a dangerous weapon, and assault and battery on a public employee. In this case, the defendant was further convicted of unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun, unlawful possession of ammunition without a firearms identification card, unlawful possession of a loaded sawed-off shotgun, unlawful discharge of a firearm, and two counts of reckless endangerment of a child.

Following these convictions, the judge considered the subsequent offender counts under the ACCA against the defendant. The Commonwealth offered into evidence a certified record of the defendant's prior adult convictions, as well as the defendant's juvenile delinquency adjudications for each offense. None of these records described the type of weapon involved, other than to identify it as a "dangerous weapon." Notwithstanding, the judge found the defendant guilty on each enhanced penalty charge, and sentenced him to concurrent terms of 15 to 17 years in state prison.

On appeal, the defendant argued that none of his prior adult convictions or juvenile adjudications was for a "violent crime" involving a "deadly weapon," and that the Commonwealth failed to prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt with the records it submitted. The Appeals Court agreed. In construing the relevant portion of the ACCA, the Appeals Court noted that the legislature's distinct use of the phrase "deadly weapon" to describe a "violent crime" indicated that the legislature intended the ACCA to apply to those crimes involving only a narrow category of dangerous weapons - those dangerous weapons that were also deadly. Therefore, the ACCA required proof of not merely a dangerous weapon involved in the prior crimes, but proof of a deadly weapon specifically.

Because the Commonwealth failed to offer any proof identifying the weapons used in previous offenses as anything other than "dangerous," or any proof that otherwise detailed the underlying offense, the Appeals Court found that the requirements of the ACCA were not met. Accordingly, the court ordered that the judgments on the enhanced sentencing counts be reversed, and that the matter be remanded to the superior court for resentencing.