State v. Scott, A-4633-10T1; Appellate Division; opinion by Fasciale, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication November 8, 2012. Before Judges Parrillo, Fasciale and Maven. On appeal from the Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 09-08-1508. DDS No. 14-2-xxxx [16 pp.]

Several people participated in the murder of a victim following a dispute over drugs. Defendant Nicquan Scott had been asked to retrieve a handgun that had been stashed in an old mattress lying in an alley. He did so and handed it to another individual, who shot and killed the victim. The gun was known to the several participants and was available for anyone to access.

Scott appeals from, inter alia, his conviction for possessing, receiving or transferring a community gun. He argues that to sustain a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a(2), the state must prove that he knew that the weapon was a community gun and that the trial judge erred in charging that to find him guilty, the state only had to prove that it was a community gun and that defendant possessed, received or transferred it.

Held: A defendant’s knowledge of the communal character of a firearm is not an element of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a(2). Therefore, the state did not have to prove that defendant knew the firearm was a community gun.

The panel applies the plain-error standard because defendant did not object to the charge below. It begins by reviewing the law governing statutory interpretation, including that the Legislature’s intent is the paramount goal when interpreting a statute and, generally, that the best indicator of that intent is the statutory language. Further, a court should give the statutory words their ordinary meaning and read them in context with related provisions. Also, the court should avoid an interpretation that would render part of the statute superfluous. The first step in interpreting a statute is to look to the plain meaning of the language. Where varying interpretations are plausible, the court should look to judicial interpretation, rules of construction or extrinsic matters.

The panel says defendant’s interpretation of 2C:39-4a(2) would require the state to prove that he knew that the gun was “transferred among, between[,] or within any association of two or more persons who, while possessing that firearm, engage in criminal activity or use it unlawfully against the person or property of another.” However, the Legislature omitted from the statutory text any such mens rea requirement. If it had intended to include, as an element of the offense, that defendant must know that the firearm is a community gun, the panel presumes it would have said so.

The panel says the legislative history of 2C:39-4a(2) supports its interpretation. Before the Legislature amended 2C:39-4a to add subsection a(2), each subsection of 2C:39-4 expressly required that the state prove that a defendant possessed a weapon with a purpose to use it unlawfully. However, when it amended the statute, the Legislature did not include the culpability requirement it had expressly stated in subsections a(1), b, c, d and e.

The panel says 2C:2-2c(1) provides that when the law defining an offense prescribes the kind of culpability that is sufficient for the commission of an offense, without distinguishing among the material elements thereof, such provision shall apply to all the material elements of the offense, unless a contrary purpose plainly appears. It concludes that such a contrary intent exists here. It says that, reading the statute in light of its purpose, the Legislature determined that the act of possessing a community gun is unlawful without any further mens rea requirement.

The panel notes that a similar conclusion was reached in State v. Pelleteri, 294 N.J. Super. 330 (App. Div. 1996), certif. denied, 148 N.J. 461 (1997), and State v. Smith, 197 N.J. 325 (2009).

The panel rejects defendant’s argument that the placement of the community gun provision in 2C:39-4, titled “possession of weapons for unlawful purposes,” as opposed to in the section titled “prohibited weapons and devices” or the section titled “unlawful possession of weapons,” shows that the Legislature intended the state to prove defendant knew he possessed, received or transferred a community gun. Case law has held that the title of a statute, more properly called the headnote, is not part of it. Moreover, a headnote is not deemed dispositive and it does not control the statute’s interpretation where, as here, it was not designated simultaneously with the amendment.

Also rejected is defendant’s argument that the “rule of lenity” should guide interpretation of the community gun statute. The panel says the contention is without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. It briefly adds that if a statutory ambiguity cannot be resolved by analysis of the relevant text and the use of extrinsic aids, the rule requires that the ambiguity be resolved in favor of the defendant. However, here, the Legislature has spoken in clear and definite language.

For appellant — Theresa Yvette Kyles, Assistant Deputy Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender). For respondent — Deborah Bartolomey, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).