Appeals Court Reverses Conviction Based on Insufficient Evidence that Knife was a 'Dangerous Weapon

August 4, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on August 4, 2014 5:00 PM |

Last month, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a criminal defendant's conviction for carrying a dangerous weapon due to insufficient evidence that the knife he was carrying was the type of knife prohibited under the applicable statute.

In Commonwealth v. Higgins, the defendant was convicted of violating M.G.L. c. 269 ยง10(b), which makes it illegal for anyone to carry certain kinds of knives deemed to be dangerous weapons. This conviction came as somewhat of a surprise, as the jury failed to also convict the defendant of the aggravated assault and battery charge that was the centerpiece of the trial.

The defendant was arrested at his residence by Boston police officers on September 5, 2009 during their investigation of a stabbing that had occurred earlier that day. After his arrest, the defendant acknowledged that he owned a knife but denied any involvement in the stabbing. The police obtained a warrant and retrieved the knife from the defendant's bedroom. The knife, which was later admitted in evidence, is a folding knife that has a blade that locks into place and studs that protrude from either side of its blade. The jury acquitted the defendant of the aggravated assault and battery charge but convicted him of carrying a dangerous weapon.

On appeal, the question before the court was whether there was sufficient evidence that the defendant's knife fell within one of the designated categories outlawed by the statute. The Commonwealth did not claim that the knife in question was one of the types of knives specifically referenced in the statute, but rather relied on the catch-all statutory language that applies to "a device or case which enables a knife with a locking blade to be drawn at a locked position." The Commonwealth pointed out, albeit for the first time on appeal, that the knife has "thumb studs" that protrude from either side of the knife's blade. It was argued that these protrusions allow the person holding the knife in one hand to open the blade quickly into a locked position with a "mere flick of his thumb." The Commonwealth argued that, as such, the thumb studs are prohibited "device[s] that enable[ ] the blade to be drawn at a locked position" and that banning such devices furthers the statutory purpose of prohibiting knives "primarily designed for stabbing human beings or for other unlawful objectives."

The defendant argued that his knife was an ordinary hunting and camping knife, designed to serve many utilitarian purposes other than stabbing human beings and available for purchase legally throughout the Commonwealth.

The Appeals Court did not resolve whether "thumb studs" on the blade of a folding knife should be considered "device[s]" outlawed by the statute, because even if the Commonwealth's interpretation of the statute was correct, there was still insufficient trial evidence to prove it. The Appeals Court reasoned that, although the Commonwealth presented evidence that the knife had a locking mechanism and presented the "thumb stud" theory at the appellate level, the jury at the trial level heard no testimony whatsoever about the ease with which the thumb studs allowed the blade to be opened into a locked position. The Court noted that the knife in evidence was presented to the jury in a sealed evidence bag made of thick plastic, making it impossible for them to truly assess themselves the ease with which the thumb studs allowed the knife to open. The Court said that absent such access, testimony, or instruction, there was no apparent reason for the jury to attempt their own assessment of such issues. Because of this, the Appeals Court determined that the evidence at trial was not sufficient to establish that the knife was equipped with a "device" that enabled its blade "to be drawn at a locked position," and thus the defendant's conviction could not stand.