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State v. Sanders

Supreme Court of Utah

June 24, 2019

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Zane Charles Sanders, Appellant.

         On Certification from the Court of Appeals

          Third District, West Jordan The Honorable Judge William K. Kendall No. 151400229

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Karen A. Klucznik, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee

          Andrea 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.

          OPINION

          Pearce, Justice

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶ 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 rifle.

         ¶ 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.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 At the time of his arrest, Sanders lived with his Girlfriend.[1]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).[2]

         ¶ 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶ 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.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶ 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 conduct.

         I. The 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, ΒΆ 15, 301 P.3d 984 (emphasis omitted) (citation omitted). "Thus, we 'interpret [] statutes to give meaning to all parts, and ...


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