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IN re D.S.

March 23, 2000

IN RE D.S., APPELLANT.


Before Steadman, Glickman, and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Herbert B. Dixon, Trial Judge)

Argued October 6, 1999

Appellant D.S., a juvenile, was found guilty of possession of a prohibited weapon, a sawed-off shotgun, in violation of D.C. Code § 22-3214 (a) (1996) and possession of an unregistered firearm in violation of D.C. Code § 6-2311 (a) (1995). D.S. appeals his convictions on several grounds. D.S. claims that the trial court erred in (1) denying his motions for judgment of acquittal on the count of possession of a prohibited weapon; (2) allowing hearsay testimony to provide the only basis for finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the shotgun barrel was less than twenty inches long; (3) finding D.S. guilty of possession of a prohibited weapon where there existed a lack of foundation as to the police officer's knowledge that the weapon introduced into evidence was the gun allegedly seized from D.S.; and (4) denying D.S.'s motions for judgment of acquittal on the possession of an unregistered firearm count. Finally, D.S. appeals the trial court's finding of guilt on the ground that D.C. Code § 22-3214 (a) is unconstitutionally vague on its face.*fn1 We affirm.

I.

On July 4, 1996, Officers Melvin Key and Anthony Mable received a call to investigate reports of gunshots in the vicinity of 14th and U Streets, S.E. in the District of Columbia. Officer Key testified that he observed D.S. riding his bicycle out of an alley with what appeared to be the butt of a weapon protruding from the waistband of his trousers. Officer Key approached D.S. and seized the weapon from him. Officer Mable confirmed that he saw Officer Key walk up to D.S. and pull the shotgun from D.S.'s waistband. Officer Key further testified that after placing D.S. under arrest, D.S. made several spontaneous statements without any questioning from the officers. According to Officer Key, D.S. stated that he was not shooting any gun and that he had found the gun in the alley after somebody had left it there. D.S. was arrested and charged with possession of a prohibited weapon and possession of an unregistered firearm.

Officers Key and Mable brought D.S. to the Seventh District station house. Sergeant Brady Johnson testified that after D.S. was booked, he was advised of his Miranda rights and voluntarily waived them. According to Sergeant Johnson, D.S. told him that he saw two men firing the shotgun in the alley and subsequently putting it down in a neighbor's yard. After the two men left, D.S. picked up the gun and took it away. The interrogation lasted approximately twenty minutes.

On August 8, 1996 and August 12, 1996, a factfinding hearing was held. D.S. moved for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the government's case and renewed this motion at the close of all the evidence. Both of his motions were denied. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found D.S. guilty of both possession of a prohibited weapon and possession of an unregistered firearm. D.S. filed this timely appeal.

II.

D.S. contends that the trial court erred in denying his motions for judgment of acquittal with respect to the possession of a prohibited weapon count, because the government failed to prove that he knew that the shotgun he possessed had characteristics that made it illegal. In reviewing a denial of a motion for judgment of acquittal, this court must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, giving deference to the fact finder's right to weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of the witnesses, and draw inferences from the evidence presented. We can only reverse a conviction on this ground if there is no evidence upon which a reasonable mind could infer guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Patton v. United States, 633 A.2d 800, 820 (D.C. 1993).

D.C. Code § 22-3214 prohibits the possession of certain dangerous weapons. D.C. Code § 22-3214 (a) states in relevant part that "[n]o person shall within the District of Columbia possess any . . . sawed-off shotgun . . . ." D.C. Code § 22-3201 (b) (1996) defines "sawed-off shotgun" as "any shotgun with a barrel less than 20 inches in length." The elements of the offense of possession of a prohibited weapon in violation of D.C. Code § 22-3214 (a) are: "(1) [t]hat the defendant possessed a . . . sawed-off shotgun; and (2) [t]hat he did so knowingly and intentionally." Criminal Jury Instructions for the District of Columbia, No. 4.72 (4th ed. 1993). "Knowingly and intentionally" is further defined as meaning "consciously, voluntarily and on purpose, not mistakenly, accidentally or inadvertently." Id.

D.S. argues that the trial court erred in holding that the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly and intentionally possessed a sawed-off shotgun because the government failed to produce any evidence that he knew that the weapon he possessed was, in fact, a sawed-off shotgun. In support of this argument, D.S. relies on the Supreme Court's decision in Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600 (1994). In Staples, the Court considered the mens rea requirement of the National Firearms Act, 26 U.S.C. § 5861 (d) (1994) ("Act"). The Court held that in order to be convicted under the Act of possession of an unregistered firearm, the government must prove that the accused knew the weapon that he or she possessed had the physical characteristics that brought it within the scope of the Act. Staples, 511 U.S. at 619. D.S., therefore, contends that the government in this case must prove that he knew that the barrel of the weapon in his possession was less than twenty inches long in order to be convicted of possession of a sawed-off shotgun. D.S.'s reliance on Staples, however, is misplaced.

Staples involved a semi-automatic rifle, for which registration under the Act is not normally required. The rifle, however, had been modified for fully automatic fire, a modification which did trigger the registration requirement of the Act. Id. at 603. Because the modification was accomplished without visible, external signs of tampering and the defendant maintained that he was unaware that the rifle had been so modified, the Court held that the government is required to prove that a defendant knows of the features of the weapon that bring it within the scope of the Act. Id. at 619.

In this case, unlike in Staples, the characteristics or features which made the sawed-off shotgun subject to D.C. Code § 22-3214 (a) were visible to anyone looking at the weapon. In other words, the weapon in this case was just what it purported to be, a shotgun with a barrel length of less than twenty inches. Because the characteristics of the weapon in D.S.'s possession which brought it within the parameters of the statute were plain and obvious on its face, the government was not required to prove that D.S. knew that the weapon in his possession was prohibited. The Court in Staples specifically recognized this distinction when it stated "we might surely classify certain categories of guns - no doubt including [] machineguns, sawed-off shotguns, and artillery pieces that Congress has subjected to regulation - as items the ownership of which would have the same quasi-suspect character we attributed to owning hand grenades in Freed."*fn2 Id. at 611-12 (emphasis added). Following this rationale, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Barr, 32 F.3d, 1320, 1324 (8th Cir. 1994), observed, "[w]here, as here, the characteristics of the weapon itself render it `quasi-suspect,' Staples does not require proof that the defendant knew of the specific characteristics which make the weapon subject to the Act. The [g]overnment need only prove that the defendant possessed the `quasi-suspect' weapon and observed its characteristics." ...


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