Knife: Tool or Weapon under Utah Criminal Law?

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real Experience. Real Results.

Knife: Tool or Weapon under Utah Criminal Law?

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A knife can be a tool. Or a knife can be a weapon. Whether a knife will be considered a weapon for purposes of a criminal charge in Utah will depend on a number of factors. But while the difference between a tool and a weapon can sometimes be subtle, the consequences of possessing or using a weapon can be significant.

If you are facing weapons charges, assault, or other criminal charges in Davis County or anywhere in Utah, the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney can be critical. Contact us today to see how we can help.

When is a knife just a knife, and when is it a weapon?

There are some things that will almost always be considered “weapons” for purposes of criminal law in Utah. Guns and hand grenades are some obvious examples. But there is a class of other items that are not normally considered to be weapons, but which can still be used as a weapon.

Baseball bats, snow shovels, and pocket knives are good examples of items that have legitimate and lawful purposes. But they are also items that can be used as weapons, and are capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or even death.

Knives can be particularly problematic, due to the fact that many people carry knives in the regular course of their daily activities. It is rare to see someone walking down the street carrying a snow shovel – unless they are in the process of clearing the sidewalk. Similarly, the most common place to find someone with a baseball bat will be at the ballpark. But it is much more common that an ordinary person might have a regular pocket knife or a multi-tool (like a Leatherman or Gerber) in their pocket for perfectly legal reasons.

Salt Lake City v. Miles

Many weapons cases involve items that are obviously “weapons” under Utah law – handguns, rifles, hand grenades, etc. But there is another class of items that may not usually be viewed as weapons, but that can still be treated as weapons based based on the actual use of the item and other circumstances – baseball bats, shovels, pocket knives, box cutters, etc.

In the case of Salt Lake City v. Miles (2014 UT 47), the Utah Supreme Court discussed the test for determining whether an item not usually used as a weapon should be considered to be a weapon under Utah law. The analysis required to make this determination depends heavily on the specific facts of any given case. So while the Miles case gives significant guidance, there are still grey areas where it can be disputed whether a specific item should be considered to be a weapon.

Knives as Dangerous Weapons in Utah

The Miles case involved a defendant who was charged with possession of a weapon by a restricted person. For purposes of the appeal, both sides agreed that the defendant was classified as a restricted person under Utah law. The dispute on appeal centered on whether the pocket knife found in the defendant’s possession should be treated as a “dangerous weapon” under Utah law.

At trial, the prosecution had presented evidence that the defendant had threatened to kill someone with a knife. When police responded to arrest the defendant, they found no weapons or other significant items in the defendant’s immediate possession. But a subsequent search of a grocery cart near the defendant revealed a pocket knife, inside a pocket of a jacket that was in the cart.

The knife blade was estimated to be approximately three inches. Under ordinary circumstances, such a knife could be considered to be a tool. But the prosecution at trial argued that the threats made by the defendant indicated an intent to use the knife as a weapon, and that the knife should therefore be treated as a “dangerous weapon” for purposes of the prosecution under Utah’s restricted persons statute.

The appeal of the Miles case happened in two stages. The Utah Court of Appeals accepted the prosecutor’s argument that the intended use of the item should be considered in determining whether the pocket knife should be considered to be a weapon. The Court of Appeals considered the defendant’s threats to use a knife to kill someone, and determined that the defendant must have intended to use the knife as a weapon. Based on the intended use of the knife, the Court of Appeals held that the knife was properly treated as a dangerous weapon in the trial court.

The second stage of the appeal process involved a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Utah Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that the determination of whether an object is a “dangerous weapon” as defined under the Utah criminal code does depend on the “intended” use of the object if the object is not actually used as a weapon and is not normally considered to be a weapon. The facts of the case did not include any actual use of the knife by the defendant – he did not brandish it, waive it in the air, display it, or even touch the knife. The court recognized the distinction between “use” and “intended use” and held that the knife, under the specific facts of the case, should not be considered to be a dangerous weapon.

It is important to note that the court’s decision was based on the specific facts of the case and the specific statutory language that existed at the time the case was heard. Under other circumstances, a knife CAN be considered to be a dangerous weapon, and serious criminal charges can be filed. Further, the Utah legislature can and does frequently make changes to Utah’s criminal code. If you are facing criminal charges for possession of a knife or other alleged dangerous weapon, consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney is vital to ensure that your rights are protected.

Finding a Utah Criminal Defense Lawyer in Davis County

With experience defending wide variety of serious charges, including aggravated murder, robbery, kidnapping, assault, and more, Davis County criminal defense attorney Stephen Howard works personally with clients to ensure that he understands their goals and that they understand the best options available to them in defending their cases. He has a record of results that speaks for itself.

If you are facing criminal charges in Davis County or elsewhere in Utah, contact us today to see how we can help you.