State v. Wilchinski, No. 15598

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtBefore CALLAHAN; KATZ; In this opinion CALLAHAN; McDONALD
Citation242 Conn. 211,700 A.2d 1
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Joseph WILCHINSKI.
Decision Date29 July 1997
Docket NumberNo. 15598

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700 A.2d 1
242 Conn. 211
STATE of Connecticut
v.
Joseph WILCHINSKI.
No. 15598.
Supreme Court of Connecticut.
Argued May 30, 1997.
Decided July 29, 1997.

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Hubert J. Santos, with whom were Hope C. Seeley, Hartford, and Patrick Bristol, E. Greenwich, for appellant (defendant).

[242 Conn. 213] Judith Rossi, Assistant State's Attorney, with whom, on the brief, were James E. Thomas, State's Attorney, Cynthia Baer, Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney, and Edward Wilson, Former Assistant State's Attorney, for appellee (State).

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Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and McDONALD, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

This appeal concerns the constitutionality of General Statutes § 53a-217a, 1 which provides that an owner of a firearm is criminally negligent if he violates the provisions of General Statutes § 29-37i 2 and, as a result of that violation, a person under the age of sixteen years obtains the firearm and causes injury or death to himself or any other person. The defendant, Joseph Wilchinski, a police officer employed by Central Connecticut State University, asserts that § 53a-217a is unconstitutionally vague, both on its face and as applied to his conduct. He further claims that § 53a-217a is defective because it impermissibly criminalizes mere negligence, fails to require that the defendant proximately cause the underlying injury or death and fails to incorporate the accessory liability standard of General [242 Conn. 214] Statutes § 53a-8. 3 We are not persuaded by the defendant's arguments and, therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The parties have stipulated to the following facts. On July 5, 1993, the defendant's fourteen and thirteen year old sons and a friend, fifteen year old Kyle Hirons, were watching television in the defendant's bedroom. 4 The fourteen year old boy removed the defendant's loaded Ruger .357 Security Six Revolver from underneath a dresser. The gun was stored in a snapped holster inside a zippered leather case. After removing six bullets from the gun, the defendant's fourteen year old son and Hirons took turns pulling the trigger. The fourteen year old boy then reloaded the gun with four bullets and, while holding the hammer back with his thumb, pulled the trigger. The hammer slipped from under his thumb, causing the gun to fire. Hirons was struck in the face by the bullet and died two days later. 5

The defendant was charged in an information with one count of criminally negligent storage of a firearm in violation of § 53a-217a. On February 7, 1995, the [242 Conn. 215] defendant moved to dismiss the charges, claiming, inter alia, that § 53a-217a was unconstitutional. On January 26, 1996, the trial court, Dunnell, J., denied the defendant's motion to dismiss.

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The defendant subsequently filed motions for reconsideration and articulation, which the trial court also denied. Pursuant to General Statutes § 54-94a and Practice Book § 4003, 6 the defendant[242 Conn. 216] thereafter entered a plea of nolo contendere with a reservation of right to appeal. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, suspended, with three years probation. The defendant appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court. Upon the defendant's motion, we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4024.

On appeal, the defendant argues that § 53a-217a is unconstitutional because: (1) it is facially vague in that (a) it inhibits constitutionally protected conduct and (b) it has no core meaning; (2) it is vague as applied to the defendant's conduct; (3) it does not require a criminal mental element (mens rea); (4) it imposes a criminal penalty dependent upon the actions of another but fails to incorporate accessory liability as defined in § 53a-8; and (5) it imposes criminal liability without requiring that the defendant's conduct be the proximate cause of the victim's injury or death. We conclude that § 53a-217a is not unconstitutionally vague and that the defendant's actions come well within the statute's core meaning. Furthermore, we are not persuaded by the defendant's arguments that § 53a-217a is defective as to its terms and requirements. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

I

The defendant first contends that § 53a-217a is unconstitutionally vague and, therefore, offends the due process[242 Conn. 217] requirements of both the federal and state constitutions. 7

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Specifically, he argues that the statute is vague on its face and as applied to his conduct. Although the defendant concedes that we have never engaged in a facial vagueness analysis outside the context of the first amendment, he nevertheless argues that because § 53a-217a implicates his fundamental right to bear arms under the state constitution, 8 certain language contained in both state and federal decisions supports a facial analysis. 9 In response, the state asserts that neither federal nor state precedent clearly supports the application of a facial vagueness analysis outside the context of a first amendment claim and that, even if this court were to extend the application of the void for vagueness doctrine, a facial vagueness analysis is inappropriate in this case because the defendant's conduct falls within the core meaning of the statute. We conduct our review of § 53a-217a mindful that "legislative enactments carry with them a strong presumption of constitutionality, and that a party challenging the constitutionality of a validly enacted statute bears the [242 Conn. 218] heavy burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt." Beccia v. Waterbury, 192 Conn. 127, 133, 470 A.2d 1202 (1984); see also In re Ralph M., 211 Conn. 289, 318, 559 A.2d 179 (1989). We conclude that the respondent has failed to meet that burden.

Assuming, without deciding, that § 53a-217a implicates a fundamental constitutional right, and further assuming that we would be willing to engage in a facial vagueness analysis outside the context of the first amendment, we need not do so in this case. Our analysis terminates once we determine that the statute, strictly construed, is not vague as applied to the defendant's conduct. See Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 756, 94 S.Ct. 2547, 2562, 41 L.Ed.2d 439 (1974) ("[o]ne to whose conduct a statute applies may not successfully challenge it for vagueness"); Benjamin v. Bailey, 234 Conn. 455, 484, 662 A.2d 1226 (1995) ("To prevail on [a] vagueness claim, the plaintiffs ... must demonstrate that the statute has no core meaning. Put another way, a determination that the statute is not vague with respect to at least one application will defeat [a] facial challenge."). 10

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[242 Conn. 219] A

"[T]he void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357, 103 S.Ct. 1855, 1858, 75 L.Ed.2d 903 (1983); see also State v. DeFrancesco, 235 Conn. 426, 443, 668 A.2d 348 (1995); State v. Indrisano, 228 Conn. 795, 802, 640 A.2d 986 (1994). Where, as in the present case, the statute addresses noncommercial behavior, "as a general rule [the defendant's actions are] not mapped out in advance on the basis of statutory language. In such cases, perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the vagueness doctrine is not actual notice, but the other principal element of the doctrine--the requirement that a legislature establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement." Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566, 574, 94 S.Ct. 1242, 1248, 39 L.Ed.2d 605 (1974); see also Kolender v. Lawson, supra, at 357-58, 103 S.Ct. at 1858; Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 162, 92 S.Ct. 839, 843, 31 L.Ed.2d 110 (1972). "This appears to be especially true where the uncertainty induced by the statute threatens to inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected rights." Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. [242 Conn. 220] 379, 391, 99 S.Ct. 675, 683, 58 L.Ed.2d 596 (1979); see also Village of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489, 499, 102 S.Ct. 1186, 1193-94, 71 L.Ed.2d 362 (1982) (stricter vagueness test applies where statute interferes with right of free speech or of association); Parker v. Levy, supra, 417 U.S. at 755-57, 94 S.Ct. at 2561-62 (statutes affecting free speech require higher degree of specificity).

Because perfect precision is neither possible nor required, however, the doctrine does not mandate the invalidation of all imprecisely drafted statutes. Rose v. Locke, 423 U.S. 48, 49, 96 S.Ct. 243, 244, 46 L.Ed.2d 185 (1975); Grayned v. Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 110, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 2300, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972) ("condemned to the use of words, we can never expect mathematical certainty from our language"); see also State v. Eason, 192 Conn. 37, 47, 470 A.2d 688 (1984), overruled in part on other grounds, Paulsen v. Manson, 203 Conn. 484, 525 A.2d 1315 (1987). "While some ambiguous statutes are the result of poor draftsmanship, it is apparent that in many instances the uncertainty is merely attributable to a desire not to nullify the purpose of the legislation by the use of specific terms which would afford loopholes through which many could escape." W. LaFave & A. Scott, Criminal Law (1972) § 11, pp. 84-85. Unconstitutional vagueness must, therefore, be contrasted with mere ambiguity, which the court has within its power to correct through a narrow interpretation of the statute. 1 W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law (1986) § 2.3, p. 127. Courts have both the power and the duty to interpret statutes so as to preserve their constitutionality when such an interpretation is possible. Moscone v. Manson, 185 Conn. 124, 128, 440 A.2d 848 (1981).

In order to be constitutional, the statute must contain some core meaning within which the...

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34 practice notes
  • State v. Miranda, (SC 16271)
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • April 16, 2002
    ...as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood accordingly.'" State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 223-24, 700 A.2d 1 (1997). In addition, "[r]eferences to judicial opinions involving the statute, the common law, legal dictionaries, or treat......
  • State v. Roy D. L., SC 20152
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 28, 2021
    ...222 Conn. 672, 685, 610 A.2d 1225 (1992), we only consider his federal constitutional vagueness claim. See, e.g., State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 217 n.7, 700 A.2d 1 (1997). We note, however, that "we have applied the same analysis to vagueness claims brought pursuant to both the state ......
  • Gipson v. Commissioner of Correction, (AC 17745)
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • August 10, 1999
    ...Committee of the Superior Court v. Freedom of Information Commission, 192 Conn. 234, 240, 472 A.2d 9 (1984); see State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 220, 700 A.2d 1 (1997) ("[c]ourts have both the power and the duty to interpret statutes so as to preserve their constitutionality when such a......
  • State v. Deciccio, SC 19104
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • December 23, 2014
    ...case, he had fair notice that those weapons fall within the proscription of that statutory provision. See, e.g., State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 221-23, 700 A.2d 1 (1997).AWhether the Statutory Terms "Dirk Knife" and "PoliceBaton" Are Unconstitutionally Vague We begin with the defendant......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
34 cases
  • State v. Miranda, (SC 16271)
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • April 16, 2002
    ...as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood accordingly.'" State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 223-24, 700 A.2d 1 (1997). In addition, "[r]eferences to judicial opinions involving the statute, the common law, legal dictionaries, or treat......
  • State v. Roy D. L., SC 20152
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 28, 2021
    ...222 Conn. 672, 685, 610 A.2d 1225 (1992), we only consider his federal constitutional vagueness claim. See, e.g., State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 217 n.7, 700 A.2d 1 (1997). We note, however, that "we have applied the same analysis to vagueness claims brought pursuant to both the state ......
  • Gipson v. Commissioner of Correction, (AC 17745)
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • August 10, 1999
    ...Committee of the Superior Court v. Freedom of Information Commission, 192 Conn. 234, 240, 472 A.2d 9 (1984); see State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 220, 700 A.2d 1 (1997) ("[c]ourts have both the power and the duty to interpret statutes so as to preserve their constitutionality when such a......
  • State v. Deciccio, SC 19104
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • December 23, 2014
    ...case, he had fair notice that those weapons fall within the proscription of that statutory provision. See, e.g., State v. Wilchinski, 242 Conn. 211, 221-23, 700 A.2d 1 (1997).AWhether the Statutory Terms "Dirk Knife" and "PoliceBaton" Are Unconstitutionally Vague We begin with the defendant......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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