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Subjective Knowledge that Object is a “Weapon” Not Required to Convict Federal Prisoner of Violating Contraband Statute

On June 7, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a federal prisoner’s conviction for possessing a weapon while in prison.

Eric Holmes was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1791(Q)(Z) after a utility knife razor blade was discovered taped to the back of his prisoner ID. He was convicted at trial, and sentenced to 24 months.

Holmes argued that he was improperly charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1791(Q)(Z) because a utility-knife razor blade is not inherently a weapon. The Court of Appeals, however, rejected his argument, noting that the jury could have reasonably believed the razor blade was a “weapon.”

Holmes also argued that the government had failed to prove that he knew the razor blade was a weapon. The statute, the appellate court explained, contained no such requirement, but an element of knowingness was nonetheless implied.

Even requiring “knowing” possession of the weapon, the Court of Appeals held that the government had met its burden. The “knowing” element was satisfied in Holmes’ case because razor blades are known by prisoners to be prohibited objects. The “knowing” element required by the statute does not require the government to prove the defendant subjectively knew the prohibited objective was a weapon.

The judgment of the district court was accordingly affirmed. See: United States v. Holmes, 607 F.3d 332 (3rd Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

United States v. Holmes