Pennsylvania law prohibits the possession of so-called "criminal instruments." The legislature has written intentionally broad laws which allow the court to define almost anything that they see fit as a "criminal instrument." The laws were written this way so that the prosecution might have an easier time winning a conviction when applying these laws to your alleged crime.
"Instrument of crime" is defined as any of the following:
- Anything specially made or specially adapted for criminal use.
- Anything used for criminal purposes and possessed by the actor under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses it may have.
The possession of any "criminal instrument" is a first-degree misdemeanor - be it a weapon, body armor or whatever object the court deems "criminal" in nature. The possession of a weapon, specifically, is illegal when there is "intent to employ [the weapon] criminally." The definition of intent is a complete vagary to be interpreted by the court, sometimes with inconsistency between cases and prosecutors. Intent itself is an abstract concept yet so many legal definitions - and the outcome of someone's real-life charges - hinge on the erratic interpretation and application of this term in a given criminal case.
The law specifically enumerates firearms in its explication of "possession of a weapon." When defining the term "weapon" itself, the law states:
Weapon - Anything readily capable of lethal use and possessed under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses which it may have. The term includes a firearm which is not loaded or lacks a clip or other component to render it immediately operable and components which can readily be assembled into a weapon.
This means that even the possession of an unloaded or completely inoperable gun (that would do no harm even if fired) could still be prosecuted under this section of law. Even possessing a replica of a firearm is illegal if the court determines you had criminal intent. Alarmingly, the court does not always need to prove that the person physically possessed the firearm in question. You can be convicted of so-called "constructive possession," in which you did not possess the weapon but had the alleged intent and ability to control the weapon.
How Does Pennsylvania Prove Possession of a Firearm as a Criminal Instrument
It is important to remember that this law criminalizes the mere possession of a firearm, under circumstances in which the court finds there was criminal intent. If the facts of the case permit, the prosecution may be able to easily prove "possession" beyond a reasonable doubt if there is any evidence you had the weapon on your person.
In order to convict, the prosecution must show:
- The accused possessed the instrument in question, in this case, a firearm
- The instrument is commonly used for criminal purposes (Firearms categorically satisfy this element. But the courts have drawn an inconsistent line separating criminal and noncriminal instruments. Sometimes it comes down to legal semantics and the conclusions are decisively unfair. If Suspect A is accused of committing robbery with a baseball bat and beating the property owner with it, it is possible he won't be charged with possession of a criminal weapon, because Pennsylvania courts have ruled a baseball bat is not a criminal instrument. By contrast, if Suspect B carries out a robbery with a fake gun and injures no one, he could face harsher sentencing because his robbery charge is compounded with the criminal instrument charge.)
- The instrument was not being used for a lawful purpose
- There was "intent" to use to instrument criminally
Penalties of Possessing A Firearm as A Criminal Instrument in Pennsylvania
A conviction under this section can enhance the penalties for aggravated assault, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery. Possession of a criminal instrument is not a "merger" offense. If two given crimes are "mergers" and a person is convicted of them both, then the judge will only sentence them to the penalties for the more serious crime. (Think buy one, get one free sales - you will always be forced to pay for the more expensive of the two items.) Possession of a firearm is not a merger offense, meaning the penalties of a conviction will be compounded with the penalties of specific related charges. This is important because it will increase the fines and potential jail time you face if you do not hire a skilled Philadelphia criminal defense attorney.
Defenses to Possessing a Firearm as Criminal Instrument in Pennsylvania
It is more than possible to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Each element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; if the prosecution cannot meet this standard, it jeopardizes their case. After scrutinizing the charges against you, Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Joseph Lento will locate the holes in the prosecution's case against you. He endeavors to craft a powerhouse defense unique to your case and your criminal instrument charge. Additionally, the credibility of the complainants could be torn down upon cross-examination. Your attorney could, alternatively, file a motion to suppress the object in question if it was recovered during an illegal search and seizure, which is a violation of your rights. The presence of an attorney grants peace of mind that your rights are being well looked at for in the midst of an incredibly trying situation.
Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney
Equipped with over 15 years of courtroom experience, Joseph D. Lento is defined by his passion for defending Philadelphia citizens against criminal charges. Do not let the vagaries of the law doom you to a stigmatizing conviction. Immediately contact Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Joseph Lento for more information or call 215-535-5353 for a consultation.