PA Superior Court Limits Application of Possession of Weapon on School Grounds Statute

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Possession of a Weapon on School Grounds

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently issued an opinion which significantly expands the defenses available in a prosecution under the Possession of Weapon on School Property statute. In Commonwealth v. Goslin, the full Superior Court reversed the initial three-judge panel decision which upheld Goslin's conviction for possessing a pocket knife on school grounds. The court ruled that the lower courts and panel erred in interpreting the defenses available under the statute when the trial court concluded that the weapon must be possessed for a lawful purpose related to a school activity. Therefore, Goslin is entitled to a new trial. 

Defenses to Possession of Weapon on School Property Charges

The Possession of Weapon on School Property statute, 18 Pa.C.S. § 912, makes it a misdemeanor of the first degree to possess "a weapon in the buildings of, on the grounds of, or in any conveyance providing transportation to or from any elementary or secondary publicly-funded educational institution, any elementary or secondary private school licensed by the Department of Education or any elementary or secondary parochial school." However, the statute also provides two defenses to the charge. First, it is a defense where the weapon was possessed and used in conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity or course. Second, it is a defense where the weapon "is possessed for other lawful purpose."  

The facts in Goslin were fairly straight forward and a little bit humorous. Goslin's son was suspended from school for three days for bringing a knife to school. Goslin and his wife then attended a meeting at school to discuss the discipline. Goslin arrived at the meeting directly from working at his job as a carpenter. When he arrived, he had a knife of his own in his pocket which he used both at work and also to sharpen pencils, whittle sticks with his sons, and “open tuna cans when [his] wife forgets to pack [him] a tuna can opener.”

At some point during the meeting, Goslin removed the knife from his pocket, put it on the table, and asked to know whether he would be arrested as well. Of course, Goslin was arrested, and he was later convicted of Possession of Weapon on School Property after the trial court found that the lawful purposes for which Goslin normally possessed the knife were not related to school activities.  

Initially, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court upheld the trial judge's reasoning that the statue requires the weapon possession to be related to school activities and affirmed the conviction. Goslin's attorneys petitioned the full Superior Court or en banc review, and the court agreed to review the case. The full Superior Court interpreted the statute differently and reversed the conviction. The court concluded:

Contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, the “other lawful purpose” language does not restrict the defense provided in Section 912(c). Instead, the phrase does just the opposite: it expands the defense to include any additional or different lawful reason not otherwise mentioned in the first clause of Section 912(c), regardless of whether it is school-related. To conclude otherwise, would make “possessed for other lawful purpose” redundant with “possessed and used in association with a lawful supervised school activity or course.”

The Superior Court's holding in Goslin is very broad. It means that if the defense can produce evidence of a lawful purpose for which the weapon was possessed, the prosecution likely should not be able to obtain a conviction under the statute. As always, we do not advocate testing the limits of these statutes. If you bring a knife to a school, you will probably still be arrested and forced to deal with the expense and risk of a criminal prosecution. But this decision clearly establishes that if there was a lawful purpose for possessing the weapon, then the Commonwealth may not prevail in a prosecution under this statute.