What is a “deadly weapon” within the context of battery?

hand holding a screwdriver

Rodriguez (Daniel) vs. State (Nev. Supreme Ct. – Dec. 28, 2017)

At issue in this appeal was the definition of “deadly weapon” within the context of battery. Rodriguez contended the jury instruction that led to his conviction for battery with the use of a deadly weapon was erroneous because the object he used to stab his victim – a screwdriver – was not designed to be inherently dangerous.

Rodriguez used a screwdriver to stab a 66-year-old man in the neck. The screwdriver was four to six inches long. It broke through the victim’s skin, causing bleeding and one night of hospitalization. The State charged Rodriguez with battery with the use of a deadly weapon, causing substantial bodily harm, against a person at least sixty years of age.

Prior to trial, Rodriguez repeatedly contested the deadly weapon allegation, arguing that a screwdriver could not meet the narrow definition of deadly weapon he claimed applied to 200.481(2)(e), which governs the crime of battery with the use of a deadly weapon. The district court rejected Rodriguez’s motions to dismiss the deadly weapon allegation.

When it came time to settle jury instructions, Rodriguez and the State submitted competing deadly weapon definitions. Rodriguez submitted an inherently dangerous definition:

A deadly weapon is any instrument which, if used in the ordinary manner contemplated by its design or construction, will, or is likely to cause a life-threatening injury or death.

The State offered a functional definition:

A deadly weapon is defined as any weapon, device, instrument, material or substance which, under the circumstances in which it is used, attempted to be used or threatened to be used, is readily capable of causing substantial bodily harm or death.

The district court instructed the jury according to the State’s definition.

The jury convicted Rodriguez of battery with the use of a deadly weapon, but found substantial bodily harm did not result. He was sentenced according to the statutory guidelines, NRS 200.481(2)(e)(1), with an enhancement because his victim was over the age of sixty, NRS 193.167. The sole issue on appeal was whether the jury instructions accurately defined deadly weapon within the context of NRS 200.481(2)(e), battery with the use of a deadly weapon.

On appeal, Rodriguez argued that the district court abused its discretion by instructing the jury on the functional definition of deadly weapon, to wit, that a deadly weapon includes any “instrument. . . which, under the circumstances in which it is used. . . is readily capable of causing substantial bodily harm or death.”

Rodriguez contended that, within the context of NRS 200.481(2)(e), the Legislature intended to define “deadly weapon” according to the inherently deadly definition, as opposed to the broader functional definition applied by the district court. The Supreme Court of Nevada explained that both of these definitions have roots in Nevada caselaw. According to the functional definition, virtually any object can constitute a “deadly weapon,” so long as it is used in a “deadly manner.” Zgombic v. State, 106 Nev. 571, 573, 798 P.2d 548, 549 (1990) (discussing both tests and ultimately adopting inherently dangerous definition for sentence enhancement statute purposes). Under the inherently dangerous definition, by contrast, a screwdriver would not qualify as a deadly weapon because a screwdriver is “not intended by [ ]nature or design to be used to cause injury.” Hutchins v. State, 110 Nev. 103, 111, 867 P.2d 1136, 1141 (1994) (reviewing sentence enhancement under inherently dangerous test). To the extent that the Legislature’s intent is unclear, Rodriguez urged that the Court to apply the rule of lenity to resolve ambiguity in his favor.

The Court explained that “[t]he ultimate goal of interpreting statutes is to effectuate the Legislature’s intent.” In re CityCenter Constr. & Lien Master Litig., 129 Nev. 669, 673, 310 P.3d 574, 578 (2013). When interpreting a statute, the Court’s starting point is the statute’s plain meaning. See Robert E. v. Justice Court, 99 Nev. 443, 445, 664 P.2d 957, 959 (1983).

The Court noted that NRS 200.481 criminalizes battery, the “willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.” NRS 200.481(1)(a). Absent aggravating factors, battery is a misdemeanor, NRS 200.481(2)(a), but it becomes a category B felony if the batterer used a “deadly weapon,” NRS 200.481(2)(e). “Deadly weapon” is not defined within the statute, and the Court indicated that it found no clues within the statute itself as to how the term should be defined. Therefore, the Court determined that the plain language of NRS 200.481(2)(e) was ambiguous as to what constitutes a “deadly weapon.”

The Court explained that when a statute’s plain language is ambiguous, “[it] turn[s] to other legitimate tools of statutory interpretation.” Castaneda v. State, 132 Nev., Adv. Op. 44, 373 P.3d 108, 111 (2016). The Court noted that of relevance here was the presumption that, “[w]hen a legislature adopts language that has a particular meaning or history. . . the legislature intended the language to have meaning consistent with previous interpretations of the language.” Beazer Homes Nev., Inc. v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court, 120 Nev. 575, 580-81,97 P.3d 1132, 1135-36 (2004).]

The Court further explained that in 1971, when the Legislature enacted NRS 200.481(2)(e), the functional definition was one of two accepted “deadly weapon” definitions within Nevada caselaw. As early as 1870, the Court defined objects as “deadly weapons” if they satisfied either the inherently dangerous or the functional test. State v. Napper, 6 Nev. 113, 115 (1870) (defining deadly weapon as “a weapon deadly either in its nature, or capable of being used in a deadly manner”); see also State v. McNeil, 53 Nev. 428, 436, 4 P.2d 889, 890 (1931) (“[W]e can easily conceive of many circumstances in which a given weapon could be equally deadly in many ways, regardless of the purpose for which it is mainly intended to be used.”); State v. Davis, 14 Nev. 407, 413 (1879) (“It was peculiarly within the province of the jury, under the facts of this case, to determine, as a fact, whether the club in defendant’s hand, as it was used by him, was likely to produce fatal consequences or not.”). Thus, because the Court’s caselaw defined “deadly weapon” according to the functional definition when the Legislature enacted NRS 200.481(2)(e), it presumed that the Legislature intended the functional definition to apply. See Beazer Homes, 120 Nev. at 580-81, 97 P.3d at 1135-36. Rodriguez cited to Zgombic v. State, 106 Nev. at 574, 798 P.2d at 550, as support for applying the inherently dangerous definition. In Zgombic, the Court rejected the functional definition for “deadly weapon” within the context of NRS 193.165. NRS 193.165 provides enhanced sentences for crimes committed with a deadly weapon, but it does not apply to crimes like NRS 200.481(2)(e) that contain “deadly weapon” as a “necessary element” of the underlying crime. NRS 193.165(4). In rejecting the functional definition, the Court reasoned, “NRS 193.165 is designed to deter injuries caused by weapons, not by people,” so “interpreting the deadly weapon clause in NRS 193.165 by means of a functional test was not what our legislature intended.” Zgombic, 106 Nev. at 574, 576, 798 P.2d at 550- 51.

The Court explained that  Zgombic is inapposite for two reasons. First, Zgombic explicitly exempted statutes like NRS 200.481(2)(e) from its holding. Id. at 574, 798 P.2d at 550 (“We have no dispute with [ ] cases which use the functional test to define a deadly weapon when a deadly weapon is an element of a crime. Indeed, that is the interpretation generally followed in Nevada.”). Second, five years after Zgombic was decided, our Legislature superseded its holding by amending NRS 193.165 to define “deadly weapon” according to both the inherently dangerous and the functional definitions. The Legislature’s rejection of Zgombic indicates its continued approval of the functional definition.

The Court also noted that Rodriguez directed it to NRS 193.165 itself. NRS 193.165(6) contains an introductory clause that limits its definitions of “deadly weapon” to “this section.” Because NRS 200.481(2)(e) is exempt from NRS 193.165’s enhancement provisions, Rodriguez argued that extending the definitions to NRS 200.481(2)(e) contravenes NRS 193.165(6)’s express limitation. The Court indicated that it rejected a similar argument in Funderburk v. State, 125 Nev. 260, 262, 212 P.3d 337, 338-39 (2009). In that case, Samaja Funderburk was convicted of burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon for burglarizing a McDonald’s with a BB gun. See NRS 205.060(4) (burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon). The Funderburk court rejected Funderburk’s argument that NRS 193.165(6)’s definitions are inapplicable to crimes that include “deadly weapon” as an element of the crime. Instead, the Funderburk court held those definitions to be “instructive” within the context of charges of burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon. The Court explained that Funderburk demonstrated that although NRS 193.165(6)’s definitions do not necessarily extend beyond NRS 193.165, nothing prevents them from helping to define “deadly weapon” within other statutes.

Thus, the Court determined that the Legislature intended “deadly weapon” within NRS 200.481(2)(e) to be interpreted broadly, according to both the functional definition and the inherently dangerous definition. Because the Court found the Legislature’s intent to be sufficiently clear on this issue, it declined Rodriguez’s invitation to apply the rule of lenity. See State v. Lucero, 127 Nev. 92, 99, 249 P.3d 1226, 1230 (2011) (“[T]he rule [of lenity] only applies when other statutory interpretation methods . . . have failed to resolve a penal statute’s ambiguity.”).

Therefore, the Court found that the district court had discretion to determine which definition of “deadly weapon” was appropriate given the facts of this case. Given that a screwdriver clearly fails the inherently dangerous definition, see Hutchins, 110 Nev. at 111, 867 P.2d at 1141, the Court believed that the district court properly exercised its discretion in instructing the jury according to the functional definition. As the Court found no legal error or abuse of the district court’s discretion in settling the jury instructions, and Rodriguez did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction, the Court affirmed Rodriguez’s conviction of battery with the use of a deadly weapon.

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