State v. Conley, 374 N.C. 209 (Apr. 3, 2020)

The defendant in this case was in possession of five guns and two knives on educational property. After threatening a school bus driver and attempting to shoot the first responding deputy, the defendant was taken into custody after a struggle with additional officers. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of attempted first degree murder, five counts of possessing a gun on educational property, and one count each of possessing a knife on educational property, cruelty to animals, and assault by pointing a gun. On appeal, the defendant argued that it was error to enter judgment on five separate counts of possessing a gun on educational property because the language in G.S. 14-269.2(b) which prohibits possessing “any gun” is ambiguous as to whether it authorizes multiple punishments for the simultaneous possession of more than one firearm. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that the language was ambiguous, and therefore under the rule of lenity the statute had to be construed as permitting only a single conviction even if the defendant possessed more than one firearm.

The North Carolina Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for discretionary review and affirmed the ruling from the Court of Appeals. Citing State v. Garris, 191 N.C. App. 276 (2008), a case in which the Court of Appeals addressed similar statutory language prohibiting possession of “any firearm” by a convicted felon and held that only one conviction for the possession of multiple firearms was proper, the higher court agreed that the language was ambiguous in this case because it could be construed as referring to either a single or multiple firearms. Pursuant to State v. Smith, 323 N.C. 439 (1988), another case involving ambiguity as to the number of permissible convictions, when a statute fails to “clearly express the General Assembly’s intent as to the allowable unit of prosecution” the “ambiguity should be resolved in favor of lenity toward the defendant.” The court rejected the state’s arguments in favor of a contrary interpretation that would permit multiple convictions, holding that it “would be an act of pure judicial speculation in guessing which interpretation the legislature actually intended.”

Justice Morgan dissented, joined by Justice Newby. The dissent distinguished the cases cited in the majority opinion by arguing that the legislative intent to permit multiple convictions under this particular statute can be inferred from the unique dangers posed by guns on educational property “and the legislature’s clear intent to protect a vulnerable population from potential school shootings.”