Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Wooden v. United States
6 A.3d 833 (D.C. Oct. 28, 2010)
It is not plain error to convict someone of possessing a knife in anticipatory self-defense.
The Defendant regularly fought with her husband and her husband’s new girlfriend. Prior to this case, the Defendant and the girlfriend got in a fight and the Defendant cut the cut the girlfriend with a pocket knife she carried to defend herself. Months later, the Defendant and her husband were arguing over whether to take the husband’s grandmother to the hospital. The Defendant threw a cup of hot coffee in her husband’s face and a fight ensued. The fight spilled outside where a neighbor saw it and saw the husband bleeding. The husband’s brother called the police and the neighbor’s son stopped the fight and disarmed the Defendant.
At trial the Defendant was convicted of a weapons charge for possessing a dangerous weapon, that is, possessing the knife. At the trial the jury received a jury instruction informing them of the weapon’s charge statute. The Defendant’s lawyer did not object to the instruction as violating the Defendant’s rights under Heller v. District of Columbia. The jury convicted the Defendant. On appeal, the Defendant was forced to argue that issuing the jury instruction was plain error because there was no objection during trial. The D.C. Court of Appeals rejected this argument because: 1) it is not clear that knives are covered by Heller; and 2) even if they were, it is even less clear that Heller allows arms to be carried about in anticipation of a need to defend one’s self outside the home.
Notes for Knife Owners
First, it is important to note that this case has a severe limitation–because the trial lawyer did not object to the weapons charge jury instruction at the time of trial, the standard the appeals court uses in reviewing the case is very, very limited. This case also shows that knives are not explicitly covered by the Second Amendment. Finally, this case shows that the law of self-defense differs if you are protecting yourself in your home versus out on the street. You have a much stronger right of protection in your home.
- Point 1: Knives are not explicitly covered by the Second Amendment.
- Point 2: The Second Amendment’s protections are more limited away from your home.
Notes for Attorneys
This case demonstrates that importance of making objections at the time of trial. Most courts have strong preservation requirements and mistakes made during trial that do not result in an objection are generally not preserved. Without a preserved objection, the appeals court, like in this case, is limited to “plain error” analysis, which strongly favors affirming the lower court decision. As such, it is important to object early and often in trial. This case also illustrates the old lawyer maxim – bad facts make bad law. Here the Defendant behaved in a clearly unreasonable way – attacking her husband’s girlfriend months before and then starting the fight in this case by throwing hot coffee at her husband. This is not a case where the facts create sympathy for the Defendant. Third, as this case mentioned, knives are not explicitly referenced in Heller and therefore, lawyers should not assume they are automatically covered by the Second Amendment. Be prepared to argue, as this case shows, that the cases Heller relies on do explicitly reference knives. Finally, be aware of the different levels of protection the law allows at home versus out and about.
- Point 1: Object early and often to preserve appeals issues
- Point 2: Unless the court or case law says otherwise, do not assume that knives are covered by the Second Amendment
- Point 3: Be aware that carry at home is more protective than carrying out and about.