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State v. Conley: The Rule of Lenity Makes an Appearance in Firearm Possession Case and Shows Textualist Bent in Supreme Court of North Carolina

The rule of lenity provides that any ambiguity in a criminal statute be construed in favor of defendants. The example I was taught in law school was an opinion from Justice Holmes in which he determined that an airplane did not constitute a motor vehicle where the statute defined motor vehicle to include an “automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails”— Justice Holmes decided that the word vehicle “calls up the picture of a thing moving on land.” McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 26 (1931). It is not often that a court relies upon the rule of lenity, but the Supreme Court of North Carolina did here. The divergent judicial analyses provide a reminder that pigeonholing a brief into one lens of statutory interpretation is a mistake and that all routes to victory should be explored. 

Defendant Adam Conley was convicted (among other charges) on five counts of violating N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b), which prohibits the possession of a firearm on school property. The charges stemmed from a single incident in which he was found in possession of five guns on school grounds. Finding the statute is ambiguous as to whether multiple counts are permitted under the statute for possession of multiple guns in a single incident, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision that the defendant could only be convicted on a single count of violating N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b). 

The statute at issue reads: “It shall be a Class I felony for any person knowingly to possess or carry, whether openly or concealed, any gun, rifle, pistol, or other firearm of any kind on educational property or to a curricular or extracurricular activity sponsored by a school.” N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b) (2019). This case hinged on whether the phrase “any gun” allows for separate punishments for each gun possessed during a single incident. 

The Supreme Court relied upon its analysis of a similar statute in State v. Smith. 323 N.C. 439, 373 S.E.2d 435 (1988). There, the defendant had been convicted on three counts of violating a statute making it unlawful to “sell, deliver or provide any obscene writing, picture, record or other representation or embodiment of the obscene.” Id. at 440–41, 373 S.E.2d at 436 (quoting N.C.G.S. § 14-190.1(a)(1) (1986)). The Smith court held that since there was no differentiation of crimes based on the quantity of the items disseminated, there was ambiguity in the statute and that such ambiguity must be construed strictly against the State. Based on similarities in statutory structure where both contain the word “any” followed by a list of singular nouns—"any gun, rifle, pistol, or other firearm” compared with “any obscene writing, picture, record or other representation or embodiment of the obscene”—the Supreme Court held that Smith dictated its ruling here. 

The Court’s opinion drew a dissent, with Justice Morgan writing that the majority had ignored clear legislative intent in the statute. For Justice Morgan, location is the critical element of N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b) and that the obvious intent of this prohibition is to prevent violence in North Carolina schools. Based on this purpose, multiple convictions should be allowed for possession of multiple firearms in a single incident. More broadly applicable, the dissent also takes issue with the majority’s consideration of the rule of lenity at the beginning of its analysis rather than first trying to construe the legislative intent embodied in the statute and only invoking the rule of lenity afterward. This fissure runs deep—it is textualism versus purposivism. The textualist approach is hesitant to look beyond the words of the statute themselves, while the purposivist approach searches first for the underlying statutory purpose and then interprets the statute in accord with that purpose. The breakdown in this opinion suggests a textualist bent, but also that it is foolhardy to go all-in on a textualist analysis at the expense of including a purposivist analysis. 

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