14 Inch Machete Not A Weapon On The Streets Of Brooklyn

June 9, 2014

Today's BrokeAndBroker Blog offers a bit of courtroom silliness. An exercise in the exaltation of academic analysis in lieu of the application of commonsense. A frightening warning about how a dangerous weapon can be deemed a kitchen utensil. In the end, we are reminded that our nation's judiciary is not not necessarily culled from among the best and the brightest. Ultimately, the judges atop the New York State appellate heap got it right. On the way to that outcome, however, you have to wonder who's balancing the scales between injustice and justice.

One Juvenile. One Machete

In the Matter of Antwaine T. (New York State Court of Appeals, 2014 NY Slip Op 04042, June 5, 2014), we encounter a 15-year-old whose identity is shielded behind the reference of only "Antwaine T."  According to the sworn statement of an arresting police officer, at about 11:23 p.m. in Brooklyn, New York, Antwaine T. was found to be in possession of a 14" machete with intent to use the same unlawfully against another. This juvenile was charged in Family Court on November 23, 2010, with two counts: 
  1. criminal possession of a weapon; and 
  2. unlawful possession of weapons by persons under sixteen. 

After eventually admitting to the count of unlawful possession by a minor - to wit that he was in possession of a "dangerous knife" - the Family Court granted Antwaine T. an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal ("ACD").

SIDE BAR: A 14-year-old on the streets at 11:23 in the evening with a 14-inch machete and, according to the arresting officer, "with intent to use" that machete "unlawfully against another." And all that gets him an ACD? Okay, sure, maybe the cop was just busting the kid's chops. Maybe a group of kids were acting up and mouthin' off. All of which could explain how a cop could, maybe, over-react. None of which explains why this kid is walking around the nighttime streets wit a machete. A pocketknife I could sort of understand. A machete? Wow, times have changed.

Juvenile Delinquent

Alas, poor Antwaine T. just didn't seem able to stay out of trouble because on June 3, 2011, following a determination that he had not complied with the terms of the ACD, his case was restored to the Family Court's calendar. In lieu of the previously imposed ACD, the Court adjudicated him a "juvenile delinquent" and placed him on six months probation.

A Utilitarian Knife?

Armed with a lawyer, Antwaine T. appealed the Family Court's ruling and the Appellate Division found that the petition by which he had been charged was facially insufficient:

"because it did not contain allegations which, if true, would have established that the knife he possessed was a 'dangerous knife'" pursuant to section 265.05 (105 AD3d 859, 859 [2d Dept 2013]; quoting Matter of Neftali D., 85 NY2d 631, 635 [1995]). Rather, the arresting officer's account "merely [*3] described the unmodified, utilitarian knife which [respondent]; possessed, and contained no allegations as to the 'circumstances of its possession'" (105 AD3d at 860 quoting Matter of Jamie D., 59 NY2d 589, 593 [1983]). Thus, it held, there were insufficient allegations to permit a finding that, when respondent was arrested, the knife served as "a weapon rather than a utensil" (id.).

SIDE BAR: The charging petition was "facially insufficient" because it did not specifically allege that a 14-inch machete was a "dangerous knife?"  So, lemme see if I understand the ruling here: the default understanding, the default expectation, the default application of the law is that a kid with a 14-inch machete on the nighttime streets of Brooklyn is presumed to be merely carrying a "utensil?"  Sure, that makes sense. The law says that a machete is no different from a plastic spoon or a sipping straw.  Don't laugh -- it ain't funny. 

What's Dangerous?

All of which set the stage for an appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals started its analysis with a concession that although the statute did not define "dangerous knife," that the Court had held that the term:
"connotes a knife which may be characterized as a weapon" (id. at 592). We explained that certain knives may fall within the scope of the statute based solely on the knife's particular characteristics. For instance,"a bayonet, a stiletto, or a dagger" would come within the meaning of "dangerous knife" because those instruments are "primarily intended for use as a weapon" . . .

The Court allowed that there are knives whose design and use was intended to serve as "utilitarian utensils;" however, the Court admonished that a knife may be converted into a weapon; and, further, the circumstances under which a given knife is possessed may permit a finding that even a utilitarian utensil could be used as a weapon. 

Cutting Plants On The Nighttime Streets Of Brooklyn

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division, reinstated the Family Court's Order, and offered this pithy explanation that:

A "machete" is generally defined as "a large, heavy knife that is used for cutting plants and as a weapon" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/machete). While a machete has utilitarian purposes, under the circumstances of this case, it would be unreasonable to infer from the statement supporting the petition that respondent was using the machete for cutting plants. Rather, the arresting officer's description of the "machete", with its 14-inch blade, being carried by respondent late at night on a street in Brooklyn, adequately states "circumstances of . . . possession" (Jamie D. at 593) that support the charge that defendant was carrying a weapon.