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Homeless Man’s Knife Not a Weapon, Court Says

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A homeless ex-felon with a pocket knife in his shopping cart was wrongly convicted of possessing a dangerous weapon, the Utah Supreme Court ruled.

Salt Lake City charged Wade Miles for multiple offenses in 2011 after police found a folding pocketknife in his jacket, which was in his cart, after he allegedly tried to board a light-rail train while intoxicated.

Accused of threatening the train conductor upon being turned away, Miles was charged with criminal trespass; threats against life or property; intoxication; and the "purchase, transfer, possession, or use of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person," a violation of Utah Code section 76-10-503.

A jury acquitted Miles of the first three charges but convicted him of the last.

On appeal, Miles argued that his pocketknife did not qualify as a dangerous weapon under the statutory definition.

Specifically, Miles said, the statute permitted consideration only of a knife's actual use, not its intended use.

Because Salt Lake City failed to present evidence that his knife was "actually used," it did not establish that his knife was a "dangerous weapon," he claimed.

An appeals court rejected Miles' arguments, however, holding that "an object's intended use may always be considered in determining whether the object is a 'dangerous weapon' as defined by statute," Justice Christine Durham recounted last week.

"Under this reading, the court held that the evidence presented at trial, including, importantly, Mr. Miles' verbal threats to kill someone with a knife, was sufficient to establish that the knife in Mr. Miles' shopping cart was a dangerous weapon," Durham added.

Miles was allegedly "vulgar and belligerent" toward a field supervisor, who was radioed by the conductor, and said "if" he had a gun or a knife he would "shoot and kill" the supervisor if the supervisor did not get away from him, according to that supervisor's witness statement.

The supervisor testified, however, that Miles said he did have a knife and a gun, and that Miles said he would either stab or shoot him. On the latter point, the supervisor said that is what he believed happened but did not actually recall.

The Utah Supreme Court vacated the conviction, 3-2, on Oct. 24, finding that Salt Lake City failed to provide sufficient evidence upon which a jury could conclude that Miles' knife was a dangerous weapon.

"We disagree with the court of appeals that the statute permits consideration of an item's intended use if the item is 'a knife, or another item ... not commonly known as a dangerous weapon,'" Durham wrote.

"None of the general characteristics recited by the court of appeals, individually or in the aggregate, give Miles' knife the distinctive tone of a dangerous weapon," he added. "The knife's three-and-a-half inch blade is nothing out of the ordinary for common utility knives; in fact, a blade much shorter than that would have substantially limited utility," the 19-page ruling states added. "And the presence of a small serrated portion on the blade is also not an inherent marker of a dangerous weapon. Indeed, average steak knives feature a blade of at least that length and a fully serrated blade. These features alone do not give a knife the 'distinctive tone' of a dangerous weapon."

The two dissenting justices said they found "no basis" for the majority's notion of two definitions of a dangerous weapon.

"Only subsection (a) of 501(6) speaks the language of definition," Justice Thomas Lee wrote. "It does so in unmistakably definitional terms - starting with the statutory term in quotes and then expressly stating what it 'means.'"

Lee added, "'Dangerous weapon' means an item that in the manner of its use or intended use is capable of causing death or serious bodily injury."

The majority's opinion contravened terms of the statute, the dissent continues.

"If an ice pick were brandished by a felon with an express threat to use it to kill or cause serious harm, surely it would qualify as a dangerous weapon (even without evidence of 'actual use' to inflict injury)," Lee wrote (parentheses in original).

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