RALEIGH — What is a “dangerous weapon?” Is the meaning the same in all cases where the phrase or something similar is used in North Carolina criminal law?
Those question where among the issues at the heart of a recent N.C. Supreme Court decision about whether the conviction of a Raleigh man for beating a police officer and taking his gun can stand. The court held that under North Carolina law, the definition of dangerous weapon can and does vary by crime and in the context of the state’s robbery statue, hands or feet by themselves do not constitute a dangerous weapon.
Arris Hinton and Pam McCullers lived together in Raleigh. Their relationship wasn’t going well, and May 16, 2003, Hinton went to the bus terminal and bought a ticket to Orlando, Fla. To Hinton’s surprise, McCullers showed up at the bus terminal and the two started to argue.
Raleigh Police Officer Kenneth Newton arrived and separated the two. While Newton was interviewing Hinton, an altercation occurred in which the policeman was knocked unconscious and Hinton took possession of his gun. Hinton was arrested by other police officers soon afterward. Newton was seriously injured in the incident, suffering a concussion, a torn right iris, a fractured right eye socket, a shattered nose, and the loss of his senses of taste and smell.
Hinton was convicted of various charges, including robbery with a dangerous weapon and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. He was sentenced to 77 to 102 months in prison for robbery with a dangerous weapon and a consecutive term of 29 months to 44 months for assault with a deadly weapon.
Upon appeal, the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of robbery with a dangerous weapon, holding that one’s own hands were not a dangerous weapon as defined by N.C.G.S. § 14-87. The law states:
“Any person or persons who, having in possession or with the use or threatened use of any firearms or other dangerous weapon, implement or means, whereby the life of a person is endangered or threatened, unlawfully takes or attempts to take personal property from another or from any place of business, residence or banking institution or any other place where there is a person or persons in attendance, at any time, either day or night, or who aids or abets any such person or persons in the commission of such crime, shall be guilty of a Class D felony.”
The appeals court did find, though, that Hinton’s actions constituted common law robbery, a lesser-included offense of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
The state sought to have the Court of Appeals decision, ordinarily a binding interpretation of law upon the state’s trial courts, reviewed by the state’s highest court.
The state advanced two arguments for having Hinton’s conviction reinstated. A lesser-included offense of robbery with a dangerous weapon is assault with a deadly weapon. As Hinton’s actions satisfied the dangerous-weapon element of that crime (he was in fact convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury), the state argued that it must follow that dangerous-weapon element of robbery with a dangerous weapon was satisfied as well. And even if not, hands were still a dangerous weapon as defined by N.C.G.S. § 14-87.
The N.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and in a unanimous ruling by the five justices that participated, sided with Hinton.
“We hold that a defendant’s hands, in and of themselves, cannot be dangerous weapons for purposes of robbery with a dangerous weapon under N.C.G.S. § 14-87,” Justice Edward Brady wrote for the high court.
The Supreme Court rejected the state’s weapons-elements equivalence argument.
“[The] fact that assault with a deadly weapon is a lesser included offense of robbery with a dangerous weapon does not mean that the scope of the weapon elements must be identical for each offense,” Brady wrote.
“The fact that every dangerous weapon under N.C.G.S. § 14-87 would also be a deadly weapon for purposes of assault with a deadly weapon does not necessitate that all deadly weapons for purposes of assault with a deadly weapon are dangerous weapons under N.C.G.S. § 14- 87. The doctrine of lesser included offenses moves downstream, not upstream as the State contends.”
Brady also noted that the state’s contention that one’s own hands and legs could always be considered dangerous and deadly weapons could lead to absurd results if applied to other statues. For example, § 14-288.7(a) prohibits the transport of dangerous weapons in times of riot or declared states of emergency. And the state’s juvenile justice code allows for a special probation condition that a juvenile not “possess [a] . . . deadly weapon.”
The Supreme Court also noted that the ordinary rules of statutory construction when applied to the statute at issue favored this narrow definition.
“Considering the purpose of N.C.G.S. § 14-87 is to provide for more severe punishment when the robbery is committed with the ‘use or threatened use of firearms or other dangerous weapons,’ we conclude the General Assembly intended to require the State to prove that a defendant used an external dangerous weapon before conviction under the statute is proper. To hold otherwise would remove the critical distinction between common law robbery and N.C.G.S. § 14-87 and require us to resolve an ambiguous criminal statute by making a liberal reading in favor of the State.”
The case is State v. Hinton, (113PA06).
Michael Lowrey is associate editor Carolina Journal.