Michigan Court Of Appeals Affirms Firearm Inoperability No Defense To CCW

On September 15, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the notion that the inoperability of a firearm is not a valid affirmative defense to the crime of carrying a concealed weapon (CCW).

In People v Humphrey, Docket No. 320353, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the fact that a firearm is inoperable is a valid defense to the felony crime of CCW. Before the Court's opinion in this case, there were discrepancies in Michigan's case law on the issue of whether it was enough that, although a weapon was designed to fire a projectile, the weapon in its current state was unable to fire a projectile.

The Court first recited the facts of the case:

At approximately midnight on January 7, 2012, Detroit Police Officer Johnny Strickland was patrolling the area of St. Marys Street and McNichols Road in Detroit, Michigan, in a fully marked police car, while accompanied by another officer. He observed defendant and another individual walking along the street, despite the availability of a pedestrian sidewalk, which was an offense for which Strickland was authorized to issue a ticket. The officers approached defendant in the police vehicle, and defendant looked in their direction. When the officers stopped and exited the car, defendant “immediately reached . . . toward his right pocket as if he was trying to reach into his pants.” Strickland instructed defendant to place his hands in the air, but defendant fled when Strickland approached him. Strickland told defendant to stop, advised defendant that he was a police officer, and ran after defendant. After chasing defendant for less than a block, Strickland caught up with him and immediately detained him, at which time defendant attempted to reach into his right pants pocket again. After Strickland handcuffed defendant, he frisked him in the area where defendant had reached, feeling a handgun through defendant’s pants. Defendant did not produce a valid concealed pistol license, and the weapon had not been visible before it was removed from defendant’s pants because “he had on two pairs of pants, [and] it was in the pants that [were] underneath the first pair.” Strickland could not recall if he ever inspected the weapon to determine if it had been loaded or operable.

On November 11, 2013, the trial court entered an order requiring the Detroit Police Department to perform ballistics testing on the weapon seized from defendant in order “to determine whether the weapon is currently operable (i.e., capable of propelling a dangerous projective).” According to the laboratory report prepared by the Forensic Science Division of the Michigan State Police, dated February 5, 2012, “[t]he submitted firearm did not function in the condition it was received, [sic] due to a missing firing pin.”

On January 6, 2014, defendant filed a motion to dismiss his CCW charge. Defendant argued that the trial court should dismiss the CCW charge because the Michigan State Police ballistics report indicated that the weapon seized from defendant “was missing a firing pin and, as a result, could not be easily made operable at the time,” which demonstrated that there was insufficient evidence to support one of the critical elements of his CCW charge. In support of his position, defendant asserted that there previously was a split of authority regarding whether an inoperable weapon could give rise to a CCW charge, but that subsequent cases resolved the issue and indicated that “[a]n affirmative defense to the charge of carrying a concealed pistol can be made by the presentation of proof that the pistol in question would not fire and could not readily be made to fire a projectile.” Accordingly, defendant argued that no reasonable trier of fact could find that the weapon recovered from defendant was operable and, therefore, the trial court should dismiss the CCW charge because the weapon did not constitute a firearm under MCL 750.227(2).

After a hearing on defendant’s motion, the trial court ruled as follows:

Okay. I took an opportunity, I read [People v Peals, 476 Mich 636, 638; 720 NW2d 196 (2006)] as well as the other cases that are cited in the Criminal Jury Instruction 11.6 because I thought that they would be helpful. My main issue with [Peals] is that it makes it clear time and time again that it applies to felon-in-possession and felony-firearm.

I tend to agree with you[,] [prosecutor], that if there was a CCW charge within that particular case[,] it probably would have applied it. However, throughout it’s [sic] holding it distinguishes between the CCW charges and felon-in-possession and felony-firearm. So I think this is a call that, for another court. I’m going to dismiss this case.

I think that ultimately the Court of Appeals or the Michigan Supreme Court has to clarify whether or not [their] new found opinion with respect to operability under firearms further extends to CCW. ‘Cause I haven’t seen anything in the case law saying that it doesn’t. Other than the [Peals] case, which is very clearly [sic] applies to felony-firearm and felon-in-possession.

So you’re probably right. And the Court’s going to get there eventually. I just don’t think that they’ve done it yet. And this might be the case to do it. So, I’m going to dismiss it.

Accordingly, on January 28, 2014, the trial court entered an order dismissing the CCW charge for the reasons stated on the record.

The Court's analysis of whether the trial court erred in dismissing the CCW charge followed:

As recognized in People v Brown, 249 Mich App 382, 384; 642 NW2d 382 (2002), “this Court . . . accorded various meanings to the statutory term ‘firearm,’ depending on the specific offense with which the defendant has been charged.” Thus, while an inoperable weapon was found by this Court to qualify as a “firearm” for purposes of MCL 750.227b [possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (“felony-firearm”)], and MCL 750.224f [felon in possession of a firearm (“felon-in-possession”)], Brown, 249 Mich App at 384-385, this Court has also held that the fact that a pistol was inoperable afforded a defendant an affirmative defense to a CCW charge:

This Court has . . . held that a pistol, as defined under the concealed weapons statute, must be operable. People v Gardner, 194 Mich App 652; 487 NW2d 515 (1992). That is, the pistol must be capable of propelling the requisite-sized dangerous projectile or of being altered to do so within a reasonably short time. Id., p 654; People v Huizenga, 176 Mich App 800, 806; 439 NW2d 922 (1989). An affirmative defense to a charge of carrying a concealed pistol can be made by the presentation of proof that the pistol would not fire and could not readily be made to fire. Gardner, supra. [People v Parr, 197 Mich App 41, 45; 494 NW2d 768 (1992).]

Consistent with this case law, subsequent opinions issued by this Court, and both the former and current versions of the model criminal jury instructions, recognized that an inoperable handgun does not constitute a “firearm” for purposes of the CCW statute, and that a defendant is not guilty of CCW when the gun is completely unusable and cannot be easily made operable. See, e.g., Brown, 249 Mich App at 384; M Crim JI 11.6; CJI2d 11.6.

However, in Peals, 476 Mich at 638, the Michigan Supreme Court considered whether the defendant possessed a “firearm,” as defined in MCL 750.222(d), and, therefore, was properly convicted of felon-in-possession, MCL 750.224f(1), and felony-firearm, MCL 750.227b. The Supreme Court held:

[T]he text of the statutory definition indicates that a weapon is a firearm if it is the type of weapon that was designed or intended to propel a dangerous projectile by an explosive, gas, or air. The definition describes the category of weapons that constitute a “firearm,” but it does not prescribe a requirement that the weapon be “operable” or “reasonably or readily repairable.” In other words, the design and construction of the weapon, rather than its state of operability, are relevant in determining whether it is a “firearm.” [Id. at 638.]

Thus, the Supreme Court concluded, “the statute requires only that the weapon be of a type that is designed or intended to propel a dangerous projectile.” Id. at 642 . . . .

Although the Supreme Court made no specific pronouncement that its interpretation of the term “firearm” under MCL 750.222(d) was applicable in all firearms cases, nevertheless, the clear implication is that, given the plain language of the statute, the Supreme Court’s construction of the term “firearm” is the only viable interpretation of the term as it concerns all the crimes defined in MCL 750.222 through MCL 750.239a. Id. at 655; see People v Lewis, 302 Mich App 338, 341-342; 839 NW2d 37 (2013) (“When the statutory language is plain and unambiguous, the Legislature’s intent is clearly expressed, and judicial construction is neither permitted nor required.”). Thus, in the instant case, the trial court was bound by the Michigan Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Peals that the definition of “firearm” in MCL 750.222(d) was “clear” and “plain[],” Peals, 476 Mich at 655, and that “the design and construction of the weapon, rather than its state of operability, are relevant in determining whether [the weapon] is a ‘firearm,’ ” id. at 638. This Court is also bound by Peals, and we hold that Peals overruled Gardner’s holding that the inoperability of a pistol is an affirmative defense to a CCW charge. Gardner, 194 Mich App at 654-655 . . . .