The North Carolina Court of Appeals wrestles with the question, "What is a metallic knuckle?" in In re: J.C., handed down today.
For those who find such things to be of interest, North Carolina General Statute § 14-269.2 prohibits possession of certain weapons, including "metallic knuckles," on school premises. J.C., a juvenile defendant, appealed from his conviction for possessing:
a three-eighths-inch thick solid metallic bar that formed a C-shaped “link” which was about three inches in length and one-and-a-half inches in width, and closed by tightening a one-half-inch thick bolt. The object, commonly referred to as a quick link, was said to be made of solid steel and to weigh at least one pound, and was distinguished in the testimony from a similarly shaped object, known as a carabiner, which is generally made of aluminum or some other lightweight alloy and is designed to hold a freely running rope or, in modern use, as a key chain. The weighted steel link was one through which the juvenile was capable of sliding several of his fingers so that three to four inches of the three-eighths inch thick solid steel bar could be held securely across his knuckles and used as a weapon as he gripped the other half of the steel link with his fist.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, J.C., who by the way sounds like one dangerous kid who clearly meant to assault another but was prevented from doing so by a good, alert teacher, was convicted and designated a juvenile delinquent for possessing something that looks this:
Is a quick link a set of metallic knuckles? I'd say not at all. Fortunately, we can turn to the definition of "metallic knuckles" provided by the North Carolina General Assembly, as the Court of Appeals did.
Except that the legislature never defined "metallic knuckles".
That didn't stop the Court of Appeals from upholding J.C.'s conviction and delinquency adjudication. In the words of the Court:
because the focus of the statute at issue is the increased necessity for safety in our schools, we think it consistent with the plain language, the spirit, and the objectives of the statute that the item seized from the juvenile as described above is sufficiently equivalent to what the General Assembly intended to be recognized as “metallic knuckles” under N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(d). [Emphasis added, citations omitted]
In other words, because the legislature surely, in spirit if not in text, meant to criminalize possession of a quick link, which is after all a round piece metal through which a knuckle could be inserted, we'll call a quick link a metallic knuckle. For the children.
Query whether schoolyard possession of a horse shoe, or a very large ring, say a Sauron The Great-sized ring, would also be a criminal offense under this law? If a quick link is a metallic knuckle, surely a horse shoe is as well.
What disturbs about this case is that the Court, in following the rule of statutory construction that the intent of the legislature controls interpretation, ignores an older and more fundamental rule, that where criminal statutes are ambiguous (as in, "what is a metallic knuckle anyway?") they should be strictly construed in favor of the defendant. While the reasons for that ancient rule should be obvious, suffice it to say that at English common law, and today, we make the value judgment that the state should only be allowed to convict defendants of laws that are clear, defined, and knowable by the citizen. That the law should put citizens on notice of what is right and what is wrong.
Unless the defendant is a child. In that case, the new rule of "for the children!" trumps all of the common law.
Update: Many thanks to my good friend David for his kind advice on the gender of French nouns.