I just read a fairly recent opinion authored by Justice Castille, wherein the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 2707.1 (Discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure) does not include a situation where someone discharges a firearm while inside an occupied structure.
In Commonwealth v. McCoy, 962 A.2d 1160 (Pa. 2009), the defendant entered an Old Country Buffet restaurant where he was a patron earlier in the day. The restaurant was quite busy, with about 250 customers present. The defendant approached the manager, complaining that he became ill as a result of the meal he at there that day. After some conversation, the defendant followed the manager into his office, reached into his pocket and pulled out a handgun. The manager ran out of the office, and into kitchen area. The defendant followed him into the dining area of the restaurant and fired his gun about five times in the direction of the kitchen. Nobody was injured.
Along with other offenses, the defendant was convicted of 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 2707.1 (Discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure). He appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which affirmed the conviction. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The defendant set forth several arguments in favor of reversing his conviction for discharging a firearm into an occupied structure. He first argued that if the legislature intended for the statute to include an act where one discharges a firearm from within the structure, it would have included language to this effect, but it chose not to. Also, he argued that because of the lower courts’ interpretation of the statute created ambiguity, the rule of lenity, which requires that penal statutes be strictly construed, and the rule that any ambiguity be interpreted in favor of a defendant be invoked. In addition, he argued that the history of the statute was to prohibit drive-by shootings. Finally, he argued that the word “into” in the statute’s title means that it requires that the firearm be discharged from outside the structure into the structure when read in conjunction with the language in the statute that the firearm be discharged “from any location”.
The government responded that the plain language of the statute does not require a shooter to be outside of a structure to violate the statute, and that the language in the statute stating that the discharge be “from any location” broadens that term “into” so as to include a shooter inside or outside a structure. Also, it argued that the meaning of the word “into” meant the discharge of a bull from the gun’s chamber “into” the area in which it was fired.
Reversing the defendant’s conviction, the Supreme Court held that the word “into” along with the phrase “from any location” renders the statute ambiguous, and one phrase must be interpreted as modifying or limiting the other. Therefore, it held that the word “into” limited the application of the statute to situations where the shooter is outside of a structure. The lower courts’ interpretation expanded the scope of the statute to situtations that the legislature did not explicitly include. The Court also found that this interpretation gives effect to all the terms in the statute, without producing an absurd result. In addition, it held that this interpretation is congruent with the law that all statutes be strictly construed, and that any ambiguity be interpreted in a light most favorable to a defendant.
Justice Eaken wrote a simple dissent, interpreting the word “into” so as not to preclude a point of origin already inside a structure. He stated, “‘Into’ may denote moving from outside in, but one may move ‘into’ a room even when one is within the room to start with. On moves into the night even when one was in the night to start with. One may proceed into the jungle despite being in the jungle already. One may introduce thoughts into the dialog that is ongoing. One need not be outside the room, night, jungle, or dialog to have the word ‘into’ be descriptive, and one need not be outside the building to shoot ‘into’ it.
Let’s see if the legislature introduces a bill clarifying this statute. I won’t be surprised if they do, and prohibit discharging a firearm “from any location into, or from within, an occupied structure.”
If you enjoyed this post, check out this article on spousal communication privilege.
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