The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Christopher S. HYUN, Defendant and Appellant.
O P I N I O N
A jury convicted Christopher S. Hyun of possessing a bayonet from an SKS assault rifle in violation of Penal Code section 12020, subdivision (a),1 and the court placed him on three years probation. He contends the court erred by failing to instruct the jury that, in order to convict him, it must first find he specifically intended to use the bayonet as a stabbing weapon. We agree and reverse.
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One warm, sunny day in the middle of May 1998, Officer Eric Wisener of the Costa Mesa Police Department spied Hyun jaywalking across Harbor Boulevard and stopped him. Because Hyun was wearing a bulky leather jacket - which seemed strange given the weather - Wisener asked if he could conduct a search for weapons, and Hyun agreed. He also told the officer he had a pair of scissors and a trimming knife in a pouch attached to his belt which he used in his work, and he was on his way to visit a friend.
During the patdown, Wisener touched what felt to be a large knife under Hyun's jacket. Upon examining the item, he found it to be a bayonet which had been removed from a Chinese model SKS assault rifle. It had been modified by the addition of a handguard and handle which allowed it to be carried and used apart from the rifle. It had a well-worn, triangularly shaped blade which the officer opined was “really not made for anything else other than to inflict a wound on a human that won't seal.” Hyun insisted the bayonet was a drywalling tool; however, seeing no remnants of drywall on the device, the officer concluded it was an illegal weapon.
In his defense, Hyun called three witnesses to testify he used the bayonet in his work as a cable technician. This work required him to supply his own tools and to break through drywall in order to install conduit and wiring. One of the witnesses had actually seen him use the bayonet for that purpose. The jury was instructed, however, that to convict, it need only find the bayonet qualified as a dirk or dagger which Hyun had a general intent to possess.
Hyun contends his conviction must be reversed because the trial court failed to instruct the jury that criminal possession of a dirk or dagger requires a specific intent to use the blade as a weapon. We agree.
Section 12020, subdivision (a) has long made it a crime for a person to carry a concealed “dirk” or “dagger.” However, in 1995, the Legislature amended section 12020, subdivision (c) by redefining those two terms to refer to any “knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death.” (§ 12020, subd. (c)(24).) Because this definition is so broad, many “instruments intended for harmless uses” are included. (People v. Mowatt (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 713, 719, 65 Cal.Rptr.2d 722.)
To avoid imposing criminal sanctions on tailors, carpenters, and others who routinely possess such instruments for innocent uses, and to preserve the constitutionality of the statute defining the offense, the Court of Appeal has construed section 12020 to require proof of mens rea. The prosecution is therefore obliged to prove that a person charged with violating section 12020, subdivision (a) “knew ․ he or she possessed a device ‘capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death’ and carried it for use as a weapon.” (People v. Oskins (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 126, 139, 81 Cal.Rptr.2d 383; see also People v. Aubrey (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1088, 1102-1103, 83 Cal.Rptr.2d 209.)
While courts typically give words in a statute their ordinary meaning, a familiar rule of statutory construction teaches that, where application of the plain language of the statute would generate an absurd result, courts should interpret the law in a manner which avoids the absurdity. (See, e.g., People v. Coronado (1995) 12 Cal.4th 145, 151, 48 Cal.Rptr.2d 77, 906 P.2d 1232; People v. Pieters (1991) 52 Cal.3d 894, 898, 276 Cal.Rptr. 918, 802 P.2d 420; Younger v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal.3d 102, 113, 145 Cal.Rptr. 674, 577 P.2d 1014.) Oskins and Aubrey do so, and we find their reasoning compelling.
Here, the trial court instructed the jury that the charged offense required only a general intent to possess a device which qualified as a dirk or dagger. That instruction was erroneous. Since the statute criminalizing possession of a dirk or dagger has been construed to require proof of a specific criminal intent, the court's instruction impermissibly relieved the prosecution of its burden to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. (In re Winship (1970) 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368.)
Moreover, based on our review of the evidence, it appears the error resulted in the conviction of a workman who, so far as the record reflects, had only used the modified bayonet at issue as a tool of his trade. Nothing we can find provides any indication of a suspicious circumstance, other than the fact Hyun's leather jacket seemed bulky to the officer who requested his consent to search. And Hyun was stopped for jaywalking - an offense which hardly foreshadows future criminal conduct. This result is the very kind of absurdity Oskins and Aubrey sought to avoid.
Nevertheless, the Attorney General urges us to uphold Hyun's conviction on the ground that any error was harmless. We would do this if we thought it was.
The prosecution argues the error was harmless because (1) “the bayonet was especially designed to inflict wounds”; (2) the bayonet was concealed; (3) Hyun was not on his way to work, where the tools might have been used; and (4) although Hyun told the officer he had scissors and a trimming knife, he failed to mention the bayonet. We find none of these facts sufficient, even when considered together, to convince us the instructional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.2
While the bayonet may have been “designed” to inflict wounds, it was “well-worn,” with a dull edge - just as one would expect it to be if it were used as a tool to open drywall. And the fact it was “concealed” in an inner pocket of his jacket and omitted from the revelation Hyun made to the officer just does not seem that unusual under the circumstances. Similarly, we do not find it particularly significant that Hyun was not on his way to work when he was found with the bayonet in his pocket. In the first place, we have no way of knowing whether he was coming from work or headed there after making other stops. And, after all, he had not only the bayonet with him but his scissors and trimming knife, too. Possession of the bayonet was significantly less suspicious in combination with acknowledged drywalling tools than it would have been all by itself. In short, the record is devoid of any evidence to show Hyun had the requisite specific intent to commit the crime of which he was convicted.
The judgment is reversed.
1. Section 12020, subdivision (a) provides, “Any person ․ who carries concealed upon his or her person any dirk or dagger is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison.” And section 12020, subdivision (c)(24) defines the terms in subdivision (a) as follows: “[A] ‘dirk’ or ‘dagger’ means a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death.” All further statutory references are to the Penal Code.
2. We also note that during its deliberations, the jury sent the court a question, asking whether the bayonet should be considered direct evidence of the defendant's guilt or merely circumstantial evidence. The court answered by simply repeating the definition of direct evidence. We think this emphasized to the jury that, in the trial court's view, a conviction would be proper so long as the jury found the bayonet qualified as a “dirk” or “dagger.” We cannot imagine why the question would have been asked had the jurors not been concerned about whether it was appropriate to convict without some evidence showing that a criminal use for the bayonet was intended.
SILLS, P.J., and RYLAARSDAM, J., concur.