Wielding Inoperable Firearm During Crime is Still Unlawful

In State v. Tasker, the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that although the State must prove to the jury that the defendant possessed a real firearm at the time of the crime, the State is not required to prove that the firearm was operable.

On June 13, 2013, Gloria Campos-White was sitting in her parked car outside of her daughter’s middle school waiting for her daughter’s basketball practice to finish. A man walked up to her open driver’s side window, pointed a gun in her face, and demanded she give him her purse. She complied, telling him as she handed him the purse that she did not have any money.

After the man had her purse, he got into the back seat and ordered Ms. Campos-White to drive. He still had the gun when he entered the car, and that although she did not see it again, at one point when they were actually driving she thought she heard the clicking of something behind her head.

The man gave directions as she drove, but he did not tell her where they were going. She did not know where they were. Not knowing his intentions, Ms. Campos-White felt desperate to get away. Without slowing her car, she waited for a gap in oncoming traffic, unbuckled her seatbelt, opened the car door, and jumped out of the moving vehicle. Her car soon struck a bank on the side of the road and flipped on its side. People nearby heard the crash. They stopped traffic and attended to Ms. Campos-White. They saw a man climb out of a passenger side door of her car and run off. Ms. Campos-White sustained a severe concussion that led to the loss of her ability to taste or smell.

Ultimately, based on video surveillance recorded by the middle school, Ms. Campos-White’s identification, and physical evidence recovered from the scene of the crash, Christopher Tasker was arrested and charged with first degree kidnapping, attempted first degree robbery, and first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The State sought firearm enhancements in connection with both the first degree kidnapping and the attempted first degree robbery charges.

At trial, Ms. Campos-White identified Mr. Tasker as the man who kidnapped and attempted to rob her. She described the gun that Mr. Tasker used, explaining it was a dark color and small enough to be held with one hand. She admitted during the State’s examination that she did not know much about guns or firearms, and testified that she had “never seen a gun in real life.” She also admitted that she would not know the difference between a revolver and semiautomatic handgun by name, but knew that they looked different. She never wavered from her testimony that Mr. Tasker had been armed with a gun, however. Asked on cross-examination whether there was any chance it could’ve been anything besides a handgun, she answered, “No.”

The defense devoted its entire closing argument to urging the jury that there was reasonable doubt whether Mr. Tasker had been armed with a real firearm. It emphasized Ms. Campos-White’s nonspecific description of the gun, her inexperience with firearms, and an asserted hesitancy in her testimony. Nevertheless, the jury found Mr. Tasker guilty of all charges and imposed the deadly weapon sentencing enhancements.

Defense Counsel brought a post-trial motion to set aside the jury’s verdict on the firearm possession findings.  The trial court informed the parties that it had concluded after reading cases cited by the parties that Division Two of the Court of Appeals “seems to focus more on the question of has the prosecution proven that the gun was operable,” while Division One “appears to focus more on the question of was the gun real,” a “slightly different question.” The court denied Defense Counsel’s motion, “recognizing that it’s a razor thin issue and it could go either way on appeal.”

Mr. Tasker’s sentences on his three convictions run concurrently, with the longest being his 144 month sentence on the first degree kidnapping count. The firearm enhancement terms (60 months for the kidnapping and 36 months for the attempted robbery) run consecutive to his base sentence, increasing his sentence by eight years.

Mr. Tasker appealed on the argument that the State failed to prove he wielded an operable firearm during the crimes. In other words, the question was whether evidence of operability at the time of the crime is required because the statutory definition of “firearm” includes language that it is a weapon or device “from which a projectile or projectiles may be fired.” Again, he argued, the firearm was inoperable.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals was not persuaded. Instead, it found that a reasonable juror would have found sufficient evidence that Mr. Tasker wielded a firearm.

Here, the State presented sufficient evidence of what it was required to prove: that the gun Mr. Tasker used in the assault was a gun “in fact,” rather than “a gunlike but nondeadly object. Mr. Tasker pointed the gun at Ms. Campos-White’s face in demanding her purse and used it to advance a kidnapping. Visibility was good; the crime occurred in daylight on a June afternoon. Ms. Campos-White saw the gun at close range and was unwavering in her testimony that it was a gun. While she forthrightly admitted to little experience with guns “in real life,” she was old enough, as the mother of a middle schooler, to have seen guns in photographs, on the news, in television programs and in movies. The clicking noise she described hearing behind her head was consistent with Mr. Tasker’s use of a real gun. Collectively, the evidence was sufficient to establish the gun met the definition of a “firearm” under RCW 9.41.010(9).

Consequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions.

My opinion? Interestingly enough, the Court of Appeals Division One might have arrived at a different conclusion. Divisions Two and Three do not require proof of a firearm’s operability. However, Division One does require such proof.