Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Salt Lake City v. Miles
2014 UT 47 (2014)
A knife is not ALWAYS a dangerous weapon under Utah law, courts must analyze how it was used or intended to be used.
Wade Miles was a homeless man in Salt Lake City. He was hanging around a light rail station, sitting on a decorative rock. He was being loud and the supervisor of the station asked him to leave. At this point Mr. Miles got very aggressive and began yelling at the supervisor. At some point he threatened to shoot or stab the supervisor. The supervisor called the police and asked them to remove Mr. Miles from the station. When the police did they searched the cart he had with him and found a folding knife in the left breast pocket of one of the jackets Mr. Miles had in his belongings. Based on the threat and the knife, the police arrested Mr. Miles and charged him with a violation of Utah’s Dangerous Weapon statute, among other things. The knife Mr. Miles had in his jacket had a 3.5 inch partially serrated blade and it opened one handed via a thumb stud. Crucially, at no point did Mr. Miles reach for the knife, brandish the knife, or indicate that he even knew the knife was in and among his belongings.
At trial and at the Court of Appeals, Mr. Miles attorney argued that the knife was not a per se dangerous weapon under the statute and that if an item is not a per se dangerous weapon, the court is required to apply a six part test to determine if the object in question is a dangerous weapon. At both the trial court and the Court of Appeals Mr. Miles lost and the court found that the knife was a dangerous weapon after applying the six part test. Mr. Miles appealed to the highest court in Utah, the Utah Supreme Court. There, the court sided with Mr. Miles and reversed his conviction for possession of a dangerous weapon.
The Utah Supreme Court began by looking at the Dangerous Weapon statute itself. First, the court notes that the Utah dangerous weapon statute has two definitions of dangerous weapon: firearms and then other objects depending on how they were used or the manner in which they are intended to be used. If an object falls into this second category, the statute has a six-part test. For purposes of Miles case only four of the parts of the test are relevant. The four parts are: 1) character of the object; 2) character of the wound that the object caused; 3) the manner in which the object was used; and 4) other lawful uses for the object. The court also noted that certain objects not listed in the statute were “known” dangerous weapons, like grenades. A knife, however, was not a known dangerous weapon and so the four-part test controlled.
The court correctly noted that the knife is a tool and despite the blade size, the serrations, and the fact that it could be opened one-handed with the thumb stud, it was not a weapon. As the court noted many of these features could be found on common tool knives, like a steak knife (which has a similar blade length and is fully serrated). The court also noted that the thumb stud and one-handed opening is common on folding knives and would be useful if the knife was being used as a tool. This first factor, according to the court, did not necessarily make the knife a weapon.
The court then rebuked the Court of Appeals for applying parts two and three of the test because the knife was not actually used. Without actual use neither the wound analysis part nor the manner of use part of the statute could apply. Finally, as the court noted, knives have many other lawful uses.
The court noted that its analysis does not allow unlimited possession of knives and notes that not all knives would pass this test, especially those that were actually used, but in this case, applying the four-part test, the City of Salt Lake had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Mr. Miles’ knife was a dangerous weapon.
Notes for Knife Owners
In many states knives, or specific kinds of knives (like automatic knives) are listed as per se deadly or dangerous weapons. Not only is this not the law in Utah, but as this case shows, knives are only dangerous weapons in the context of their use. This case represents a big win for knife owners in Utah. The case also details that certain features, like one-handed opening, larger blade sizes, and serrations have uses apart from being things that make a knife a weapon.
- Point 1: Knives are not automatically considered dangerous weapons in Utah.
- Point 2: The use or intended use of a knife is crucial in determining if it is a dangerous weapon.
- Point 3: Features that make a knife easier to use or better a cutting don’t, necessarily, make it more like a weapon.
Notes for Attorneys
This case is not only an excellent case for Utah attorneys, applying a use/intended use screening for knives, it also has excellent language for use by attorneys litigating knife cases in other states. The majority here, again and again, found that knives are tools first and foremost, and only become dangerous weapons when they are intended to be used as such – a very common sense approach. The majority also gave attorneys good language for specific features. If you have a case with a large blade (this one was 3.5 inches), with serrations, or with one-handed deployment, this case provides persuasive arguments why those things standing alone or even together do not convert the knife into a weapon. Finally, and though not explicitly stated in the opinion, there seems to be a tacit argument that the Defendant did not know the knife was in his belongings when he made the threatening statement. As such, it is advisable when litigating knife possession cases to always, if possible, contest the knowledge element. In most jurisdictions, possession crimes are not strict liability offenses, so be prepared to argue that your client, even when the item was near to hand, was not aware of it being there and thus did not knowingly possess the knife.
- Point 1: Utah’s knife law requires a use analysis for knives, they are not per se dangerous weapons.
- Point 2: Be prepared to use the language about the knife’s features in cases outside of Utah to show that a knife, even with speed and convenience features, is still more a tool than a weapon.
- Point 3: If the charge relates to possession, don’t forget to argue the mens rea requirement for possession offenses.