What if you bring a gun onto 'educational property,' but don't know that it's educational property?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

That's not a crime under North Carolina law, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held today in State v. Huckelba. First, the facts (some paragraph breaks added throughout):

On 25 December 2012, Defendant [Anna Huckelba] was a senior at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. Because it was Christmas day, school was not in session, and there were few cars on campus. That evening, sometime after 4:30 P.M., Defendant pulled into a parking spot in front of High Point University's Administration Building. In order to get to this parking spot, Defendant had to drive past a fence, but she did not have to drive through any security gates.Had Defendant chosen to move her car from its location in front of the Administration Building to the residential area of campus, she would have encountered a security gate, and would need a security card to drive into the residences. Instead, Defendant parked her car in an area that was open to the public, approximately two miles away from "main" campus, where most of the academic buildings are located.

High Point police officers recognized Huckelba "because the officers were previously instructed to 'be on the lookout' for Defendant for an unspecified reason." They approached her, asked her whether she had a gun, learned that she had a gun and three knives in the car, and arrested her. She was later prosecuted and convicted for possessing the gun and the knives on educational property, in violation of North Carolina law that made it a crime

knowingly to possess or carry, whether openly or concealed, any gun, rifle, pistol, or other firearm of any kind [or any sharp-pointed or edged instrument except instructional supplies, unaltered nail files and clips and tools used solely for preparation of food, instruction, and maintenance] on educational property or to a curricular or extracurricular activity sponsored by a school.

"Educational property," under North Carolina law, includes any property used by any public or private school or college. (Since the incident, the law has been changed to expressly exclude people with concealed carry permits—which Huckelba had—who have "a handgun in a closed compartment or container within the person's locked vehicle"; but the case was decided under the version of the statute at the time of Huckelba's conduct.)

The jury found Huckelba guilty, after having been instructed, for the pistol and each knife:

The defendant in this case has been charged with knowingly possessing a [pistol / knife] on educational property.

For you to find the defendant guilty of this offense, the State must prove two things beyond a reasonable doubt:

First, that the defendant knowingly possessed a [pistol / knife].

And second, that the defendant was on educational property at the time she possessed the [pistol / knife].

Because the defendant had no criminal record, "the trial court imposed a suspended sentence of six to seventeen months imprisonment for the Class I felony gun charge, and a suspended, consolidated sentence of forty-five days imprisonment for the misdemeanor [knife] charges."

But the court of appeals concluded the instruction was wrong—indeed, so wrong, that the convictions should be reversed even though defendant's lawyer hadn't properly objected to the instruction at trial:

In accordance with United States Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit cases, and our State law presumptions, we analyze N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-269.2(b) under the following principles of statutory construction: (1) the common law presumption against criminal liability without a showing of mens rea [i.e., a culpable mental state]; (2) the General Assembly's intent in enacting and amending the statute; and (3) the rule of lenity. We hold under each relevant principle of statutory construction, the "knowingly" mental state in Gen. Stat. § 14-269.2(b) must modify both clauses "possess or carry" and "on educational property." …

Here, the trial court's error in its jury instructions amounted to fundamental error because the jury was presented with sufficient evidence that Defendant lacked knowledge of her presence on educational property. The evidence presented at trial showed that Defendant knew that she was not allowed to bring her gun onto "campus," and does not bring the gun into her dorm room.

Further, on the day in question, Defendant chose not to drive into the gated, residential area of campus with the gun in her glove compartment, even though her stated purpose for being in the parking lot was to do her laundry in her dorm room. Rather, Defendant chose to park her car in an area open to the public, requiring no special permit to enter. This evidence suggests that Defendant knew that the gated, residential area of campus was "educational property," but that the public parking lot—which was mostly empty at the time—was not.

According to the trial court's erroneous jury instructions, these facts would be irrelevant to the jury's analysis of Defendant's guilt because they pertain only to Defendant's knowledge of her presence on educational property. Proper consideration of such facts probably would have impacted the jury's finding of guilt in this case….

Our reading of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-269.2(b) requires the State to prove that a defendant both knowingly possessed or carried a prohibited weapon and knowingly entered educational property with that weapon. This interpretation of the statute safeguards the rights of lawful gun owners in our State while also protecting vulnerable citizens present on educational property.

The court also noted that,

Under our reading of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-269.2(b), the State is not saddled with an unduly heavy burden of proving a defendant's subjective knowledge of the boundaries of educational property. Rather, the State need only prove a defendant's knowledge of her presence on educational property "by reference to the facts and circumstances surrounding the case."

If, for example, the evidence shows that a defendant entered a school building and interacted with children while knowingly possessing a gun, the State would have little difficulty proving to the jury that the defendant had knowledge of her presence on educational property. If, however, the evidence shows that a defendant drove into an empty parking lot that is open to the public while knowingly possessing a gun—as in this case—the jury will likely need more evidence of the circumstances in order to find that the defendant knowingly entered educational property.

The prosecution remains free to retry Huckelba; but at the retrial, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Huckelba indeed knew that she was on educational property.

This seems to me the right interpretation of the statute, and the right legal rule as well. There are some elements of some crimes that operate on a "strict liability" basis, so that defendants can be convicted even if they didn't know the elements were satisfied, and indeed had no reason to know that. But, at least except as to petty traffic offenses, that is the exception rather than the rule; the general rule is that the prosecution must prove that the defendant knew the facts that make up the crime—or at least was consciously aware of the risk that those facts were present, and unjustifiably ignored that risk (that's sometimes called "recklessness"). And when the statute specifically makes it a crime "knowingly to possess or carry … [a weapon] on educational property," the assumption should be that the legislature would indeed require knowledge that the property is educational property and not just knowledge that one is possessing or carrying the weapon.

Thanks to Camden Webb for the pointer.