Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
People v. Sito
2013 Ill. App. 1st 110707 (Ill. App. Ct. 2013)
Illinois’s per se dangerous weapon statute is not a strict liability offense and blade length is the length of any non-handle portion of a knife.
NOTE: This case is factually similar to the Texas case Rainer v. State, where the Texas court also held that the blade is any non-handle portion of the knife. See AKTI’s recommended method of measuring blade length.
This case has truly bizarre facts. The defendant walked into a city building in Chicago that has a security desk. As he passed the desk, security asked him why he was in the building and he told them that he was there to report that someone had abused his cats. They also searched him. According to security, they found the knife on Sito’s person. According to Sito they found the knife only after rummaging through his bag five or six times. He claimed to not realize it was there. The knife’s non-handle portion measured 3 1/8” while the sharpened edge measured 2 7/8.” Mr. Sito was arrested and taken into custody. There he apparently behaved in a manner that aggravated security. He was charged with possession of a prohibited knife on public grounds. He did not have permission from the head of security to bring the knife onto public land.
At trial, Sito represented himself. Sito showed a picture with three different measuring devices all that demonstrated that the cutting edge of the knife was under 3”. The trial court rejected this argument. The trial court then instructed the jury about Chicago’s per se dangerous weapon statute. In doing so, it followed the language of the statute exactly and did not include a mental state (the state of mind a person must possess in order to violate the law). Sito was found guilty and sentenced to 364 days incarceration.
On appeal Sito raised two arguments: 1) the trial court erred in finding that the sharpened edge was not the blade length; and 2) that the court’s failure to include a mental state for the possession crime was incorrect. The appeals court rejected the argument regarding the sharpened edge, despite two out of state cases supporting Sito’s argument. It reasoned that the dictionary definition of blade did not support the “sharpened edge” definition, despite the out of state cases, and found that the blade was any non-handle portion of the knife. The court did, however, find that the lack of a mental state in the jury instruction was improper, especially in light of Sito’s compromised mental state and testimony about the knife being inadvertently in his bag. Importantly, the court also found that this particular statute requires a “knowing” mental state.
Notes for Knife Owners
In states with blade length restrictions, it is not often clear how blade length is measured. As this case shows, two different ways of measuring blade length lead to two different legal conclusions. Be aware of the application blade length restrictions, how blade length is measured, and be cautious.
- Point 1: Be exceptionally careful with blade length issues, best be safe and undercut the length restriction by a clear amount.
Notes for Attorneys
This case is a helpful example of what to avoid in a dispute over blade length. First, it could be better to challenge the blade length determination before trial, if possible. Not only will this flush out the issue without the risk of trial, but it may make it easier to preserve the arguments for appeal. When the issue is brought up on appeal avoid any claims that the blade length argument is one involving sufficiency of the evidence. It is a matter of statutory interpretation and should be viewed as such. This will make the standard of review better for the defendant (abuse of discretion for sufficiency vs. de novo for statutory interpretation). The analysis here of the mental state issue was very helpful. Many weapons statutes have serious penalties and have no mental states. When this occurs, courts can fill in mental states. Always argue for the most restrictive mental state possible. As the court notes, most possession offensive have “knowing” mental states, but that doesn’t mean you can’t argue for more.
- Point 1: Try to litigate the blade length issue prior trial
- Point 2: On appeal be sure to cast the blade length issue as a matter of statutory interpretation to secure the better standard of appellate review.
- Point 3: If a weapons statute lacks a mental state, argue for the most restrictive mental state