Minor in possession of a deadly weapon?

Last week, the California Supreme Court decided In re B.M., a case that required the Justices to address the meaning of the term “deadly weapon.”

The story, in essence, is this: B.M, a teenaged girl, returned home one night and found that her sister had changed the locks (there’s probably a bigger story here than could be examined through the lens of this case, but we’ll get to that later.) She managed to get in through the window and confronted her sister. In her anger, she picked up a butter knife in the kitchen–a dull metal knife with round serrations at the end, which is usually used for spreading butter rather than for cutting. She came into her sister’s room holding the knife and the sister covered herself with a blanket.

Here is the case’s description of the interaction:

B.M. approached Sophia, who was lying on top of the bed with her knees bent. Sophia testified that B.M. “came . . . at [her] trying to stab [her]” and that from a distance of about three feet, B.M. made several “downward” “slicing” motions with the knife in the area around Sophia’s legs. Sophia further testified that the knife hit her blanketed legs “a few” times and that the amount of pressure B.M. used was “maybe like a five or a six” on a scale from one to ten “if one is the least amount of pressure and ten is the most pressure.” Sophia initially said B.M. poked her with the knife, but she later clarified that B.M. did not poke or stab her and that B.M. did not “hurt” her. B.M. testified she only “wanted to scare [Sophia]” and “had no intentions in actually stabbing [Sophia] with [the knife].”

Reading between the lines, it seems that Sophia had originally exaggerated her description of the events to the cop who showed up, and later retracted some of that when she realized this might have consequences. There’s also clearly a history between B.M. and Sophia that is left unexplored in this decision.

The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court decision, which affirmed B.M.’s conviction for assault with a deadly weapon. In doing so, the Court established a realistic, context-driven definition of “deadly weapon”:

We hold, consistent with settled principles, that for an object to qualify as a deadly weapon based on how it was used, the defendant must have used the object in a manner not only capable of producing but also likely to produce death or great bodily injury. The extent of any damage done to the object and the extent of any bodily injuries caused by the object are appropriate considerations in the fact-specific inquiry required by Penal Code section 245(a)(1). But speculation without record support as to how the object could have been used or what injury might have been inflicted if the object had been used differently is not appropriate.

In other words, in the context of this case, when an inexperienced person ineffectually waves the weapon toward someone covered in a blanket, in a manner that cannot hurt the other party, the weapon is not a “deadly weapon.”

Common sense decisions like this are important, because the trend in the last decades has been to expand the reach of elements and enhancements involving weapons. But the decision has special significance for cases involving women and juveniles. The method by which women and girls commit violent offenses is different than that of men, and ignoring gender context misses out on important parts of the picture. As Lyn Brown, Meda Chesney-Lind, and Nan Stein explain in this paper, there has been an increase in the criminalization of girls, which is perceived as an increase in girls’ violence. This has sparked a moral panic regarding girls. But when you look at the context, what you find is that girls are criminalized with increased frequency for behaviors that are often a response to a larger context of domestic abuse (as might be the.case in B.M.’s case – we simply don’t know the full picture.) Moreover, treating assaults involving weapons more seriously, a seemingly straightforward, gender neutral convention, overlooks a fact that my friend and former student Ryan Newby found plays an important role in violent crime sentencing: the fact that, in domestic assault contexts, women are more likely to use a weapon to even the odds against assailants who are frequently bigger and stronger than they are. Ignoring this context makes it appear as if the assault is more serious because a weapon has been used, when oftentimes the weapon is whatever was at hand in the kitchen–such as the butter knife in this case.

The California Supreme Court decision makes no mention of this broader context, but it is useful to keep it in mind. Gender equity in sentencing is not always straightforward, because the language of the law is neutral and ignores what empirical research tells us about the circumstances of violent offending. This is, therefore, an even better decision than it appears at first blush.

Oh, and the kid in the picture is my very own minor. 🙂

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