Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Commonwealth v. Alem A.
81 Mass. App. Ct. 1101 (2011)
Though Heller was applied to knives in Massachusetts, double-edged knives can still be restricted by law.
NOTE: Despite Heller being announced in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court, Massachusetts had a tortured history of rejecting its holding. Only after McDonald did the Supreme Judicial Court concede that it applied to the states. See Commonwealth v. Powell, 459 Ma. 572 (2011)
The facts here are very simple. A trio of teenagers were standing on a street corner in the middle of winter. It had just snowed and was exceptionally cold out. In the group was a boyfriend and girlfriend. The boyfriend was the Defendant. A police officer approached the trio in his cruiser and began talking to them. The Defendant juvenile told the officer he was sixteen. Given the weather, the officer was concerned. As he got out of his cruiser the officer he noticed that the Defendant juvenile smelled like alcohol. As he began talking to the juvenile he pat-frisked him for officer safety. The pat frisk turned up nothing suspicious. He told the juvenile to call his parents. The juvenile called his brother and the brother was on his way to pick him up. The officer then turned to the juvenile’s girlfriend. She too smelled like alcohol, so he told her to call her parents. Her parents answered and agreed to meet the officer with their daughter at the police station. When the juvenile heard that his girlfriend was going to the police station he became belligerent and began yelling. At some point he approached the police officer and the officer pushed him back. As this happened, the officer heard a noise. Once he got control of the juvenile he went back and discovered a large double-edged knife on the ground. It had fallen out of the juvenile’s pocket and made a noise when it hit the ground. The juvenile was arrested and charged with violating Massachusetts’s dangerous weapons statute that, among other things, prohibited possession of double edged weapons.
At trial the juvenile was found guilty despite challenging the search and claiming that the knife was lawful under Heller. On appeal the court quickly dealt with both claims. First, the court noted that Heller carved out an exception for unusual weapons and Massachusetts case law had a long history of finding double-edged knives as unusual and dangerous weapons. As such, even with Heller applying to the states, it did not protect the juvenile’s possession of the knife. Second, because the knife was not found as a result of the pat frisk, which was arguably illegal, it could not be suppressed.
Notes for Knife Owners
There are a few lessons that can be gleaned from this short case. First, Heller applies to knives in Massachusetts. Second, again, it is important to remember that how we view knives and how the public, including law enforcement and the bench, view knives is radically different. A dagger is not something especially sinister to a knife person, but it is a commonly restricted design across the entire US. Be cognizant of what you carry.
- Point 1: Heller was assumed to applied to knives in Massachusetts
- Point 2: Always consider how others will view the knife you choose to carry
Notes for Attorneys
Though the case is pithy, there are some gems here. First, despite a strong resistance to Heller being applied to the States from 2008 to 2011 when Massachusetts ruled on and rejected Heller, the court here simply assumes that Heller applies to knives. The fact that Massachusetts both resisted application of Heller to the States and is a notoriously liberal state gives this assumption a bit more persuasive power. IF any state was going to reject Heller applying to knives because of a lack of an explicit tie in to the case itself, it was going to be Massachusetts. Fortunately, Massachusetts simply assumed Heller applied. Second, it is also important to note that the Massachusetts lawyer gave suppression a valiant but unsuccessful try. Finally, and most importantly, this is a case where facts dictated the outcome. Though never mentioned explicitly in the opinion, it is easy to envision a scenario where the juvenile stabbed the officer. The knife was not found during the pat frisk but it hit the ground during a struggle. The court never mentions it, but it is at least possible that the knife hit the ground when it did because the juvenile was trying to use it. Courts, when faced with a threat to officer safety will almost always defer to the officer’s actions.
- Point 1: Even Massachusetts, which resisted Heller applying to the states for three years, assumed without question that Heller applies to knives.
- Point 2: Always explore suppression as a possible remedy.
- Point 3: When officer safety is threatened, the courts will almost always find his or her actions legal.