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California and the West

Justices Put Burden on Gun Owners

Ruling: Defendants can be convicted if they 'reasonably should have known' their assault weapons are illegal.

August 01, 2000|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Owners of illegal assault weapons can be sent to state prison even if they did not know their guns had been banned, the California Supreme Court decided Monday.

Defense attorneys had argued that defendants should not be convicted unless prosecutors could prove that the owners knew the weapons had been outlawed. Prosecutors insisted such knowledge was irrelevant.

Neither side prevailed completely. In a 5-2 ruling, the court said defendants can be sentenced to three years in state prison for possession of an illegal assault weapon if they "reasonably should have known" that the weapons possessed the characteristics of those outlawed by the Legislature.

Requiring actual knowledge would make it too difficult to enforce the law and "constitute a heavy burden for the prosecution," wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar for the majority.

"Generally speaking, a person who has had substantial and unhindered possession of a semiautomatic firearm reasonably would be expected to know" whether it possessed the characteristics of the weapons the Legislature has banned, Werdegar wrote.

The Legislature outlawed about 75 models of assault weapons in 1989 after a gunman with an AK-47 sprayed bullets over a school playground in Stockton. Five children were killed and 29 were wounded.

Monday's decision in People vs. Jorge M. stemmed from a 1996 search of the Los Angeles home of 16-year-old Jorge M., who was on probation for a drug conviction.

A probation officer asked the boy where he kept his possessions. The boy pointed to a bunk bed area in the living room of the family's home.

A police officer then found three rifles on top of the bunk bed. An unregistered SKS-45 semiautomatic rifle with a detachable clip was found on a clothes cabinet a few feet from the boy's bed. That weapon is banned under the 1989 assault weapons law.

The boy's older brother, Juan, testified that the unloaded weapons belonged to him and his father, an avid hunter.

Juan M. said he had removed the guns from a closet to take them to a relative's house for safekeeping while he and his family were in Mexico. The mother also testified that Jorge did not own the guns.

But a Juvenile Court found that the boy illegally possessed the weapons and placed him in a detention camp for up to three years and eight months.

The Supreme Court, reciting the evidence, concluded that Jorge should have known the weapon was an SKS with a detachable magazine and therefore his conviction should stand.

Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Marvin R. Baxter dissented, declaring that a person should not be prosecuted unless it could be proven that he or she knew the weapon contained features that are outlawed.

"The majority's test casts too wide a net, snaring persons who lack the culpability appropriate for imposing a state prison sentence," Kennard wrote.

J. Courtney Shevelson, an attorney from Carmel who represented Jorge in the case, said the court's decision will not pose "much of a barrier" for prosecutors.

"The Supreme Court has made it possible for somebody to be convicted even if they did not actually know the weapon had characteristics of an assault weapon. . . ," Shevelson complained. " 'Reasonably should have known' is not good enough when you are talking about criminal sanctions."

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said his office has not yet evaluated the impact of the decision.

"We're reserving judgment pending closer review of the opinion and discussion of it with our firearms experts," Barankin said.

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