Criminal Possession of a Firearm: Court of Appeals Narrows “Place of Business” Exception
People v. Wallace
2018 NY Slip Op 03305
New York Court of Appeals
Issue: Whether a “place of business” exception to Penal Law § 265.03 (3) applies to an employee who possessed an unlicensed firearm at work.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that a “place of business” exception under Penal Law § 265.03 (3) does not simply apply to an employee who possessed an unlicensed firearm at work. The Court determined that the “place of business” exception should be narrowly applied to a “merchant, storekeeper, or principal operator” of the establishment—not merely employees of the place of business.
Facts: Defendant Akeem Wallace was working as a “swing manager” (a new manager who had not yet received training) at a McDonald’s in Buffalo, New York. Wallace was conversing with employees and his cousin at a table when he stood up, accidentally causing the gun in his pocket to fire. After attempting to clean up the blood, Wallace handed the gun with his cousin who then left.
Police arrived at the McDonald’s after receiving a call notifying them that shots had been fired. No one at the restaurant admitted that a shooting had taken place, but the police soon discovered that someone with a gunshot wound had recently checked into the nearby hospital.
The officers proceeded to the hospital where Wallace attempted to convince them that someone at a nearby bus stop had shot him, although an employee finally stated that Wallace had actually shot himself. After an investigation, police discovered evidence of the shooting at the McDonald’s and concluded that Wallace had shot himself. Wallace was arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree in violation of Penal Law § 265.03, a class C violent felony.
The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment or reduce the charges to a misdemeanor, arguing that because he possessed the firearm at his workplace, the “place of business” exception to Penal Law § 265.03(3) applies. After the Supreme Court denied the motion, Wallace was convicted after a bench trial.
The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment with one dissenting opinion. While the majority held that the “place of business” exception should be narrowly construed “in an effort to balance the State’s strong policy to severely restrict possession of any firearm . . .” the dissent stated that the language of the “place of business” exception should apply to the defendant.
Legal Analysis: In New York, a person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree when he or she possesses any loaded firearm. Penal Law § 265.03(3). However, the statute also provides that a person who possesses a loaded firearm in his or her own home or “place of business” cannot be found in violation of Penal Law § 265.03(3). While this exception does not render the possession legal, it recognizes that such possession—to protect one’s own property or place of business—is not deserving of a felony charge.
Wallace urged the Court to view the “place of business” exception as an umbrella exception for any place where a person earns their livelihood. On the other hand, the People argued that the statute implies that the individual must have some sort of ownership over the “place of business.”
To settle the question of statutory interpretation, the Court inquired “of the spirit and purpose of the legislation.” Looking at the licensing Penal Law, the Court noted that the “place of business” language is found there as well. Section 400.00 provides a description of the possession of a firearm “in one’s place of business,” which includes the language “by a merchant or storekeeper.” Turning to Smith v People, 47 NY 330, 339 (1872), the Court determined that the language in Penal Law § 400.00 could aid in the interpretation of section 265.03.
The Court then focused on the purpose of the amendments of Penal Law 265.03 and how the original Committee who drafted the amendments intended the “place of business” to be interpreted. According to documented reports cited by the Court, the Committee’s focus was on the ban against carrying loaded firearms in public places, while highlighting the strict requirement for a license to possess a gun in “one’s place of business.” The Court determined that the Committee’s use of the possessive “one’s” must be taken into consideration when interpreting the language within the Penal Law. Thus, since the Committee specifically referenced ownership over the place of business, the amendments should be interpreted as such today.
Given the interpretation of the Committee’s reports (the use of “one’s”) and the language within Penal Law § 400.00 (“place of business by a merchant or store keeper”), the Court held that the “place of business” exception should be narrowly construed. Rather than applying the exception to any employee, the exception applies only to those who would qualify for a license to possess a firearm at their “place of business” under Penal Law § 400.00. Although Wallace did hold a managerial position, he was not the principal operator of the McDonald’s and, thus, was not entitled to the “place of business” exception under Penal Law § 265.03(3).