Supreme Judicial Court (May 19, 2011)

The phrase "dangerous weapon" as used in G. L. c. 269, § 10(j) should be given its common-law meaning: those objects that are dangerous per se and those that are dangerous as used.

The Assabet Valley Regional High School reported to police that a juvenile student was in possession of a knife. The knife fell out of the student's pocket and a teacher saw it on the floor. The student admitted to police that the knife was his and that it was a birthday gift from his father. The knife's blade was approximately two inches long and it folded into a handle.

The school suspended the student, who was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on school grounds in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 10(j). The parties stipulated to the police report's factual summary. The juvenile filed a motion to dismiss and argued that the knife was not a "dangerous weapon."

The parties agreed to have the Juvenile Court judge report the following question of law: "Whether a knife that is not a per se dangerous weapon enumerated in G. L. c. 269, § 10(b), may constitute a 'dangerous weapon' as that term is used in G. L. c. 269, § 10(j), when that knife is not being used in a dangerous manner."

The SJC stated that the reported question hinges on the meaning of the phrase "dangerous weapon" in § 10(j), which provides: "Whoever, not being a law enforcement officer, and notwithstanding any license obtained by him under the provisions of [G. L. c. 140], carries on his person a firearm . . . or other dangerous weapon in any building or on the grounds of any elementary or secondary school, college or university without the written authorization of the [school] shall be punished by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both."

The SJC was presented with several interpretations of the phrase "dangerous weapon." The motion judge indicated that the phrase may be defined using the list of items prohibited pursuant to G.L. c. 269, § 10(b). The juvenile argued that § 10(j) should be interpreted according to the phrase's ordinary meaning under the common law. The Commonwealth did not offer a definition for the phrase, but instead argued that a separate statute, G.L. c. 71, § 37H, provides that "[a]ny student who is found on school premises…in possession of a dangerous weapon, including, but not limited to, a gun or a knife…may be subject to expulsion."

The Court stated that under "the common law of Massachusetts, dangerous weapons include those objects that are dangerous per se - 'designed and constructed to produce death or great bodily harm' and 'for the purpose of bodily assault or defense. Commonwealth v. Appleby, 380 Mass. 296, 303 (1980) - as well as those objects that are dangerous as used - items that are not dangerous per se but become dangerous weapons because they are used in a dangerous fashion.'" Commonwealth v. Tevlin, 433 Mass. 305, 310 (2002), quoting Commonwealth v. Appleby, supra at 304.

The Court rejected the Commonwealth's analogy to G.L. c. 71, § 37H. The Court presumed that, in drafting § 10(j), the Legislature used a term with a common-law meaning because it intended to adopt the common-law definition. "Although it appears unlikely that the two-inch folding knife carried by the juvenile constitutes a dangerous weapon within the common-law definition, we make no holding in this respect because we rely exclusively on the stipulated facts and thus are without complete information regarding the design, purpose, and construction of the knife." The Court remanded the matter to the Juvenile Court for further proceedings.