NY Court of Appeals Ducks a Decision on a Troubling Mens Rea Issue

POST WRITTEN BY: Professors Peter Widulski and Bennett L. Gershman

In April 2011, a man exited a subway train at a station in Manhattan and encountered a police sergeant and two other police officers. The officers reported that the man shouted obscenities and gesticulated at them and accused them of blocking his access to a stairway to an upper platform. They further reported that the man continued to swear at them as the sergeant followed him up the stairs. The sergeant reported that his intention in following the man – subsequently identified as Richard Gonzalez – was to issue Gonzalez a summons for disorderly conduct. While following Gonzalez, the sergeant noticed the handle of what appeared to him to be a knife in Gonzalez’s back pocket. After detaining Gonzalez on suspicion of disorderly conduct, the sergeant seized the item in Gonzalez’s back pocket and determined that it was a “gravity knife” because the blade in the handle snapped and locked into place upon flicking the wrist holding the handle. Under New York’s Penal Law it is a crime to possess a “gravity knife.”

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted Mr. Gonzalez for criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, pursuant to Penal Law § 265.02 (1), which, in conjunction with Penal Law § 265.01 (1), subjects a defendant to third degree criminal possession of a gravity knife, a felony, if the defendant was previously convicted of a crime.Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress evidence of his possession of the knife on the ground that his detention for disorderly conduct was unlawful, and therefore the seizure of the knife was the fruit of the unlawful arrest. The defendant’s motion was denied, and a jury subsequently convicted him of third degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 3 ½ to 7 years in state prison.

On appeal, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously held that the facts supported probable cause to arrest the defendant for disorderly conduct. People v. Gonzalez, 112 A.D.3d 440 (1st Dep’t 2013). The court further unanimously held that the only mens rea element the prosecution had to prove regarding possession of a gravity knife was that the defendant knew he possessed a knife “in general,” rejecting defendant’s argument that the prosecution needed to prove that he knew the knife he possessed had the characteristics of a gravity knife.

Leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was granted, and on April 28, 2015, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the Gonzalez case at the Judicial Institute on the campus of Pace Law School. Although the parties argued both the probable cause issue and the mens rea issue, it appeared to us that the Court’s questions focused primarily on the issue of whether the prosecution needed to prove that the defendant knew that he possessed a knife with the characteristics of the prohibited “gravity knife.” And to observers, it appeared that the Court was clearly troubled by this issue. Gonzalez’s appellate counsel informed the Court of the undisputed facts that Gonzalez had purchased the knife – a “Husky” brand utility knife which he used in his long-time work as an independent contractor – at a Home Depot store some five years earlier. Counsel argued forcefully, and several of the judges appeared to accept the argument – that fairness required the prosecution to prove that Gonzalez knew that the knife he lawfully purchased for his work had the characteristics of a gravity knife. Indeed, in watching the back and forth, we were reminded of the famous Supreme Court decision, Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952), taught in every first-year law school class, in which Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “A relation between some mental element and punishment for a harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child’s familiar exculpatory ‘But I didn’t mean to,’ and has afforded the rational basis for a tardy and unfinished substitution of deterrence and reformation in place of retaliation and vengeance as the motivation for public prosecution.”

In the face of the persistent and probing questions put to her by several of the judges, the prosecutor argued that the Legislature intended only that a person know simply that he possessed a knife, not whether the knife had the characteristics of a prohibited weapon. When Judge Eugene Pigott pressed her with hypothetical situations in which someone might possess quite innocently a lawfully purchased gravity knife, counsel stated that prosecutorial discretion might be used to avoid unfair prosecutions. Judge Pigott responded by noting that such discretion could lead to discriminatory results, based perhaps on a prosecutor’s consideration of the defendant’s race, or other improper considerations.

In a decision issued on June 15, 2015, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously reversed. But the Court reversed the Appellate Division not on the weapon possession issue but on the ground that “there is no record support for the motion court’s determination that defendant’s rant against the police officers constituted the crime of disorderly conduct.” Thus, the Court was able to avoid addressing the troubling issue regarding whether there is any mental culpability requirement for possession of a weapon, besides the requirement that the person know he possesses an object, which turns out to be a prohibited item.

Why courts avoid decisions on some issues really goes to the heart of the judicial process. Courts typically do not reach out to decide difficult-to-resolve questions if they do not have to. This is especially true when a court confronts issues relating to the legitimacy of a statute, or an interpretation of a statute that may break new ground. Clearly, the weapons issue in Gonzalez was a broader and much more difficult question than the detention issue, a purely legal question. The Court ducked the weapons issue knowingly, and probably with the knowledge that it would confront a similar issue again, and on a record making a resolution more likely.