Court Debates Definition of ‘Assault Firearm’ – Judge Eventually Rules Defendant Should Go to Trial, but Dismisses Other Felony

By Ankita Joshi

SACRAMENTO, CA – The defense and prosecution had a heated deliberation here in Sacramento County Superior Court this week about how to determine what weapons constitute “assault firearms” during a probable cause hearing for defendant Michael Benton.

Benton was present in court on two felony counts of a violation of possessing a firearm after being convicted of a misdemeanor, and the possession of an assault weapon.

On July 20, 2020, Benton was arrested after officers were called to a disturbance outside an apartment building where threats had been made with a firearm.

The arresting officers claimed they saw Benton standing near the front of an apartment building with his hand in his pants pocket. The outline of a gun was visible, and when he was asked to remove his hands from his pockets, Benton allegedly dropped the gun on the ground and tried to fall on top of it.

Deputy Spencer testified that the firearm they collected from Benton would classify as an assault weapon because of the following characteristics: a semi-automatic pistol with detachable magazine located somewhere outside of the grip and a barrel shroud.

For the first felony violation, Benton had previously been found guilty at trial by jury in Nevada for domestic abuse, but Assistant Public Defender Gina Le contended that the Nevada misdemeanor on Benton’s record did not fall under specific California penal codes.

For the second felony violation, PD Le also contended that the firearm possessed by Benton did not meet the definitions outlined by the addressed California penal codes to be considered an assault weapon.

“There is no law, there is no penal code section that says that there can be a general definition of an assault firearm. It is very specific in what an assault firearm is,” argued PD Le.

On the other hand, Deputy District Attorney Allison Weider maintained that the testimony given by Deputy Spencer was enough to qualify the firearm possessed by Benton as an assault firearm because of Deputy Spencer’s so-called “training and experience.”

These lines of argument began a long deliberation over what the correct definition of an “assault firearm” would be and how the firearm possessed by Benton would be classified.

After approximately 15 minutes, Judge Gerritt W. Wood admitted that he had had no time to prepare for this case and had “no familiarity with the statutes” that were being referred to.

Calling it an “unprecedented” case, Judge Wood moved for a recess so that he could take some time to understand and research the statutes.

However, before the recess began, Judge Wood did submit for a preliminary hearing, as he was “not prepared to rule for either count.”

Following a 30-minute recess, Judge Wood arrived with tentative rulings for each felony count.

For Count 1 of an alleged violation of possessing a firearm after being convicted of a misdemeanor, Judge Wood ruled that an out-of-state misdemeanor does not qualify under any California penal code, as the public defender said.

DDA Weider did not agree with this ruling and pushed to try to convince the court that a holding order should be issued for Count 1.

“That wouldn’t be the legislative intent to beat your wife or your girlfriend in one state and be prohibited from possessing a firearm, and then come to California and be allowed to possess a firearm,” stated DDA Weider.

In response, Judge Wood cited People v. Sheer (1999), which stated that it would be sufficient to hold a defendant if the offense was a felony. However, Benton was convicted of a misdemeanor in Nevada, and thus no holding order would be issued, so the charge was dismissed.

For Count 2 of the alleged possession of an assault firearm, Judge Wood noted that since everyone was present for a probable cause hearing and not a preliminary hearing, the officer’s opinion would be enough to establish probable cause.

Judge Wood also drew attention to the characteristics that the penal code included to constitute an assault weapon, which contained a barrel shroud as one of the pieces. As a result, he ruled that there was enough probable cause present to move forward for Count 2.

Once these tentative rulings were given, PD Le put in a request for a 17(b) motion to reduce the Count 2 felony to a misdemeanor. However, Judge Wood agreed with the prosecution that Benton’s previous criminal history would consider him to be a danger to the public.

The remaining assault weapon felony is set for trial in September.

Ankita Joshi is a second-year student at the University of San Francisco, pursuing a major in International Studies and a minor in Political Science. She is originally from Sacramento, CA.


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