Certification from the Court of Appeals
District, West Jordan The Honorable Judge William K. Kendall
D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Karen A. Klucznik, Asst. Solic.
Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee
J. Garland, Salt Lake City, for appellant
Justice Pearce authored the opinion of the Court in which
Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice
Himonas, and Justice Petersen joined.
1 Zane Charles Sanders cannot legally possess a firearm
because the Utah Code prohibits any individual convicted of a
felony from, among other things, "intentionally or
knowingly" having a firearm in his possession. Utah Code
§ 76-10-503(1)(b), (3) (2014). A jury convicted Sanders
of violating section 503 after police officers responding to
a domestic complaint found Sanders in his backyard carrying a
2 Sanders claimed that when the police officers arrived at
his home, he was moving his girlfriend's son's
firearm back into the house. Sanders argued that he was only
transporting the rifle because it had been left in the
backyard, which abutted an elementary school. He asked the
district court to instruct the jury that it could acquit him
if it found that he was innocently possessing the weapon. The
district court refused. Sanders appeals, arguing that refusal
was error. We disagree with Sanders and affirm.
3 At the time of his arrest, Sanders lived with his
Girlfriend.Girlfriend's teenage son, M.M., owned
three firearms that he used for hunting. The firearms were
stored, unsecured, in the bedroom closet Sanders and
Girlfriend shared. Ammunition for those firearms was supposed
to be stored separately in M.M.'s bedroom.
4 One evening, Sanders learned that M.M. had left his hunting
rifle outside, unattended, in the backyard. Upset, Sanders
argued with Girlfriend about M.M.'s dereliction at a
volume that prompted a concerned neighbor to call the police.
5 The police responded to the complaint. When they arrived,
an officer heard a man yell Girlfriend's name. The
officer then saw Sanders standing on the back porch holding a
rifle. The officer pulled out his flashlight and demanded to
see Sanders's hands. Sanders set the rifle down, raised
his hands, and said, "I'm not armed."
6 Sanders refused to talk to the officer and informed him in
salty, if somewhat unoriginal, language that he needed a
warrant to enter the house. Sanders then went inside, leaving
the rifle on the back porch. Sanders had spoken with slurred
speech, and the officers believed he was intoxicated. The
officers then spoke with Girlfriend. Based on her comments,
the officers concluded that Girlfriend's young daughter
might be inside. The officers conducted a safety sweep of the
home to ensure that the child was safe. During the sweep, the
officers observed ammunition in a bedroom and a magazine for
a rifle in the living room.
7 After the safety sweep, the officers ran a records check
and discovered that Sanders was a restricted person; that is,
because Sanders had been convicted of a felony, Utah law
restricts him from possessing a firearm. The officers went to
the back porch and collected the rifle-which, as it turned
out, was fully loaded. The officers then left the home. A few
days later, Sanders called the police department and asked if
he could get the rifle back.
8 Two weeks after the initial encounter, the officers
returned with a warrant to retrieve firearms, dangerous
weapons, ammunition, and any items related to firearms from
Sanders's home. Sanders again asked the officers to
return the rifle. And Girlfriend told the officers that
additional firearms belonging to M.M. were in her bedroom
closet. The officers arrested Sanders.
9 During their search of the home, the officers confiscated
two unsecured firearms, multiple magazines, ammunition, a
machete, and a sword. Additionally, the officers found a
small amount of marijuana.
10 The State charged Sanders with three counts of possession
of a firearm by a restricted person, third degree felonies in
violation of Utah Code section 76-10-503(3).
11 Before trial, Sanders requested an innocent possession
jury instruction. Sanders's requested instruction would
have told the jury that a restricted person is not guilty of
the offense of possession of a firearm "if (1) the
firearm was [ob]tained innocently and held with no illicit or
illegal purpose, and (2) the possession of the firearm was
transitory; that is, that the defendant took adequate
measures to rid himself of possession of the firearm as
promptly as reasonably possible."
12 The State opposed the jury instruction. The State argued
that the felon-in-possession statute does not leave room for
an innocent possession defense. The State further argued that
even if there were such a defense, the facts did not support
its application in this case because Sanders's possession
was not "transitory."
13 The district court denied Sanders's request. The court
ruled that it did not "need to decide whether or not the
innocent possession defense is available here" because,
based on the evidence presented at trial, there was no
"factual basis to give [the] instruction." The
court reasoned that jurisdictions that recognize the defense
require the "defendant to demonstrate both that he
intended to turn the weapon over to the police and that he
was pursuing such an intent with immediacy and through a
reasonable course of conduct," which Sanders did not do.
14 The jury convicted Sanders on one count of possession of a
firearm by a restricted person. The jury acquitted him of the
two additional charges of possession of a firearm by a
restricted person, which were based on a theory that Sanders
constructively possessed the firearms that the police
officers found in his home. Sanders appealed the conviction.
The court of appeals certified the case to this court.
15 "Whether a jury instruction correctly states the law
presents a question of law which we review for
correctness." State v. Houskeeper, 2002 UT 118,
¶ 11, 62 P.3d 444.
16 Sanders asserts that the district court's refusal to
instruct the jury on an innocent possession defense
constitutes reversible error. Sanders contends that: (1) the
defense is consistent with the felon-in-possession statute;
(2) the defense is consistent with our precedent; and (3)
without the defense, Utah law will criminalize innocent
behavior in a fashion that will generate absurd results. The
State argues that neither the statute nor case law supports
an innocent possession defense and that the Legislature could
have rationally intended to criminalize Sanders's
Statute Does Not Support an Innocent Possession Defense
17 To decide whether the felon-in-possession statute includes
an innocent possession defense, we begin our inquiry with the
statute itself. The point of statutory interpretation is to
understand what the Legislature intended. Bagley v.
Bagley, 2016 UT 48, ¶ 10, 387 P.3d 1000. Because
"'[t]he best evidence of the legislature's
intent is the plain language of the statute itself,' we
look first to the plain language of the statute."
Id. (alteration in original) (citation omitted). As
we examine the text, "'[w]e presume that the
legislature used each word advisedly.'" Ivory
Homes, Ltd. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 2011 UT 54,
¶ 21, 266 P.3d 751 (citation omitted).
18 Of course, "we do not view individual words and
subsections in isolation; instead, our statutory
interpretation 'requires that each part or section be
construed in connection with every other part or section so
as to produce a harmonious whole.'" Penunuri v.
Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 15, 301 P.3d
984 (emphasis omitted) (citation omitted). "Thus, we
'interpret  statutes to give meaning to all parts, and