This court decision required knowledge of both law and grammar.
A divided appeals court in North Carolina ordered a new trial on Tuesday for a former High Point University student who was convicted of offenses for having a pistol and three knives in a car she parked on campus. At issue, in part: what the word “knowingly” modifies in a state law about possessing weapons on educational property. Does it modify just the possession or both possession and property?
In a 2-1 decision, the majority said it modifies both parts of the law that resulted in the conviction and sentencing of Anna Laura Huckelba. The court also overturned her conviction.
On Christmas Day 2012, Anna Laura Huckelba parked outside the school’s administration building, driving past a fence but not through any security gates onto the campus about 80 miles northeast of Charlotte, according to North Carolina’s state Court of Appeals. She parked in an area open to the public, about two miles from the main cluster of academic buildings.
An officer, told to be on the lookout for Huckelba for unspecified reasons, took her to the administration building and the loaded gun was later found in the car’s glove compartment and three knives in the backseat, according to the court’s decision. Huckelba explained she had the weapons for protection when she walked through a dark parking lot after work, the court noted.
At trial in October 2013, Huckelba was found guilty of three counts of misdemeanor weapon on educational property and one count of felony weapon on educational property. She received suspended sentences.
Huckleba, a senior, told officers that she wanted to do her laundry in her dorm room on campus.
Her attorney appealed her conviction, saying the court had erred in instructing the jury that Huckelba was guilty of possessing a gun on educational property even if she didn’t know that and that her trial counsel was ineffective. The judges dismissed the latter argument.
The statute under which Huckelba was convicted states: “It shall be a class I felony for any person knowingly to possess or carry, whether openly or concealed, any gun, rifle, pistol or other firearm on educational property or to a curricular or extracurricular activity sponsored by the school.” In the appeal, Huckelba’s attorney argued that “the trial court should have instructed the jury that it must find Defendant not guilty of the crime if it finds that Defendant was not knowingly on educational property.”
In writing for himself and Judge Donna Stroud, Judge Robert N. Hunter Jr. wrote that “the issue of whether the word ‘knowingly’ … modifies both clauses ‘possess or carry’ and ‘on educational property’ is an issue of first impression for the court,” meaning it’s the first time the court has tackled the issue.
The law “provides us little guidance in determining which words in the sentence ‘knowingly’ should modify,” he wrote. “While the clause ‘whether openly or concealed’ is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas, there is no punctuation separating the ‘knowingly possess or carry’ clause from the latter clauses in the sentence.”
Judge Wanda Bryant dissented, but not because of grammar. She said she didn’t necessarily disagree with that part. Instead, Bryant said the error in jury instructions did not have a probable impact on the jury verdict as required. She also wrote that Huckelba provided no evidence she didn’t know she was on university property.
Her appeals attorney, Edward Eldred of Carrboro, declined comment on Tuesday’s decision.
High Point University is a private liberal arts school with about 4,200 undergraduate and graduate students.
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