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A paintball gun can be considered a weapon and a shooter can be convicted of attempting to “cause harm to others” even if the target is an inanimate object, such as an unoccupied vehicle, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled last week. In State in the Interest of G.C., justices unanimously reinstated a juvenile’s guilty plea offense that, if committed by an adult, would be unlawful possession of a weapon under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. The 15-year-old G.C. admitted shooting a paintball gun at a car parked in a driveway, causing unspecified damage. The Appellate Division had thrown out the plea, reasoning that although the statute classifies a paintball gun as a weapon, it was interpreted in State v. Lee, 96 N.J. 156 (1984), to be intended to protect against “threat of harm to others.” But Justice Peter Verniero, writing for the court, said the appeals judges had read Lee too narrowly. “We understand how, in citing Lee, the Appellate Division could have concluded that ‘harm to others’ means harm to a person as opposed to an inanimate object,” he said. “However, we consider ‘harm to others’ more broadly to include damage to a person’s property. “Given the destructive capabilities of those weapons defined by the statute, the Legislature no doubt sought to prevent or curb possession of them in a wide set of circumstances,” he added. That the relevant portion of the statute does not specify objects, as opposed to people, “does not … demonstrate the Legislature’s desire to exclude from that section circumstances implicating damage to property,” Verniero said. The Appellate Division also had noted that the relevant model jury charge requires the state ” to prove that [the weapon] was possessed under such circumstances … where it posed a likely threat of harm to others.” The court instructed the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges to revise the charge. “[T]hat aspect of the charge is incorrect to the extent that it requires for conviction circumstances threatening harm to a person even when the government has proved circumstances threatening damage to property,” Verniero wrote. “Either set of proofs will satisfy that element of the statute.” The state’s lawyer, Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Simon Rosenbach, says the court needed to take the case to clarify its position in Lee and to correct the model jury charge. “You can be convicted of a crime if you think about using it as a weapon,” says Rosenbach, adding that the ruling will make it easier for prosecutors to fight the growing use of paintball guns by juveniles to damage property. “It’s another arrow in their quiver,” he says. G.C.’s lawyer, Newark solo practitioner Thomas Ashley, did not return a call seeking comment.

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