Is carrying a concealed knife or box cutter legal in California? Does the length of blade matter?

Penal Code section 16470 defines a dirk or dagger as “a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death.” (Ibid. ) This definitional language is immediately followed by an exemption: “A nonlocking folding knife, a folding knife that is not prohibited by Section 21510[, i.e., a switchblade], or a pocketknife is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.” (Ibid .)

Penal Code section 16470 excludes only nonlocking folding knives, non-switchblade folding knives, and pocketknives. The box cutter in defendant’s backpack was nonfolding. If the Legislature had wanted to exclude nonfolding box cutters from the definition of “dirk” or “dagger,” or to exclude all box cutters as they chose to exclude all pocketknives, they could have said so. “Our function is not to judge the wisdom of statutes. [Citation.] Nor are we empowered to insert what a legislative body has omitted from its enactments.” ( Wells Fargo Bank v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1082, 1099, 282 Cal.Rptr. 841, 811 P.2d 1025 ; see also People v. Albillar (2010) 51 Cal.4th 47, 54–55, 119 Cal.Rptr.3d 415, 244 P.3d 1062 [in construing statutory language, reviewing court must give words ” ‘their ordinary and usual meaning’ ” and view them in context ” ‘because the statutory language is usually the most reliable indicator of legislative intent’ “].)

The Supreme Court has held the definition of dirk or dagger includes a knowledge element. ( People v. Rubalcava (2000) 23 Cal.4th 322, 331–332, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 735, 1 P.3d 52, discussing former Pen. Code, § 12020.) “Thus, to commit the offense, a defendant must still have the requisite guilty mind : that is, the defendant must knowingly and intentionally carry concealed upon his or her person an instrument ‘that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon.’ ” ( Rubalcava, at p. 332, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 735, 1 P.3d 52.)

“In addition to incorporating a knowledge element, the California Supreme Court has generally recognized that when a defendant is charged with an offense that penalizes possession of an instrument that is ordinarily usable for peaceful purposes, the defendant may justify the possession by showing the possession was ‘in accordance with [the instrument’s] ordinary legitimate design.’ ” ( People v. Mitchell (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1364, 1372, 148 Cal.Rptr.3d 33, quoting People v. Grubb (1965) 63 Cal.2d 614, 621, fn. 9, 47 Cal.Rptr. 772, 408 P.2d 100 ; see also CALCRIM No. 2501 [“When deciding whether the defendant knew the object [ (could be used as a stabbing weapon) ], consider all the surrounding circumstances, including the time and place of possession. Consider also (the destination of the defendant[,]/the alteration of the object from standard form[,] ) and other facts, if any.”].)

[A] morally blameless person carrying a concealed box cutter for innocent purposes, such as a grocery store worker, carpenter or car mechanic, cannot be convicted of violating Penal Code section 21310. Defendant was convicted of violating section 21310 because he inflicted a deep, bloody wound on the victim and yelled at the victim as he sat slumped against a wall that defendant would kill him (and the eyewitness, too), leaving the victim in hysterical fear of death. This defendant was not morally blameless, and our holding does not invite prosecutors to prosecute morally blameless people.

Full case here: People v. Hester, 58 Cal.App.5th 630, 272 Cal. Rptr. 3d 648 (Cal. Ct. App. 2020),

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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