Comma Placement is Key in Weapons Charges Appeal - Sparrow Law Firm

Evidence is a key factor in many criminal cases. Witness testimony is a key factor in others. However, it was grammar that was a primary factor in a recent weapons charges case heard by a North Carolina appeals court.

The case, reported on by the Associated Press, involves a former High Point University student who was convicted on weapons charges after having a pistol and three knives in a car she parked on the university’s campus.

However, on appeal, the issue wasn’t whether or not the woman parked her car on campus with weapons inside. The primary issue was how the word “knowingly” operates in the following state statute:

  • “It shall be a class I felony for any person knowingly to possess or carry, whether openly or concealed, any gun, rifle, pistol or other firearm on educational property or to a curricular or extracurricular activity sponsored by the school.”

The appeal questioned whether the law intended that woman only had to “know” that she was in possession of a weapon, or if she had to also “know” that she was in possession of a weapon and “know” that she was on school property.

In other words, does the word “knowingly” in the statute modify the clause involving the possession of a weapon, or does it modify the clause involving the possession of a weapon and the clause involving being on educational property?

The woman’s defense lawyer argued that the trial court had erred by instructing the jury that the woman only had to know that she was in possession of weapons, even if she didn’t know that she was on school grounds.

In attempting to answer this question, the court based its decision on the use of commas to divide the clauses in the statute. Ultimately, a divided court ruled that it modifies both aspects of the law, and the woman’s conviction had to be overturned. A new trial was ordered.

As you can see, many criminal cases present very unique issues that are only discovered by the keen eye of an experienced criminal defense lawyer. It is possible that this woman could eventually say that she owes her freedom to a comma (or lack thereof).