Section 571.030, RSMo. is a rather long and convoluted statute that defines all the ways a person can commit the felony offense of “Unlawful Use of a Weapon” in Missouri, along with a long list of exceptions to the different offenses and the variety of punishments that can apply to the different violations.
The ways the statute can be violated include carrying a concealed, deadly weapon into any of a long list of prohibited locations, including a police station, a courthouse, a legislative building, a polling place, a detention facility, a bar or a school. This section has a long list of exceptions and an extremely varied range of punishments, depending on the status of the accused.
Other unlawful uses of weapons include setting a spring gun; exhibiting a weapon capable of inflicting death in an angry or threatening manner; possessing a firearm while intoxicated (but only if the intoxicated possessor handles it negligently, unlawfully, or discharges it other than in self-defense); discharging a firearm within 100 yards of an occupied school, courthouse or church; or possessing a firearm while also in possession of a felonious controlled substance.
There is a fair bit of duplication in this long statute.
For instance, one section prohibits shooting a firearm into a motor vehicle. A different section prohibits shooting a firearm at a motor vehicle, this latter prohibition being added by a legislative amendment to the original statute in 1995.
And, for unknown reasons, at least unknown to me, the section that prohibits shooting at a motor vehicle carries a significantly stiffer punishment scheme than that prohibiting shooting into a motor vehicle.
This is the legislative backdrop for a case decided by the Missouri Court of Appeals last week, State v. Haynes.
It seems that the defendant was a tad upset that his car was being repossessed, right before his very eyes, from the parking lot of a hotel where he was staying.
And so, there he saw his beloved car connected to the tow truck in front of it, with the repo agent sitting in her vehicle behind it. As they prepared to take off, the defendant walked up to his car, whipped out his trusty hand gun and discharged a series of shots into it.
For this, the defendant was charged with four felony offenses.
Included in the charges was unlawful use of a weapon, by shooting at a motor vehicle (as distinguished from shooting into a motor vehicle, which carries significantly softer punishment, especially for someone with the defendant’s prior criminal record).
The jury acquitted him on two of the more serious charges but convicted him of unlawful use of a weapon by shooting at a motor vehicle, and a lesser offense.
Because of his prior criminal history, the defendant received a sentence on the unlawful use charge of 15 years in prison, with no possibility of parole, whereas, if he would have been convicted of unlawful use by shooting into a motor vehicle, the maximum punishment would have been four years, with eligibility for parole in less time.
On appeal, the defendant made his disappointment known, claiming that this statutory scheme should be struck down based upon vagueness and ambiguity, that the prosecutor’s arbitrary decision to proceed on shooting at a car instead of into it had major sentencing consequences and was entirely arbitrary, and/or that the court should at least engraft on the statute prohibiting shooting into a car a requirement that the car must be occupied.
The Court of Appeals didn’t buy any of the defendant’s arguments, saying the statute is neither vague nor ambiguous, that the prosecutor’s office was vested with discretion to proceed with charges as it saw fit, and it was not within the province of the court to add requirements or conditions to criminal statutes.
One lesson in all of this: Don’t act brazenly and unlawfully with firearms, particularly if you have a criminal history, and expect prosecutors and the courts to give you a break.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.