HEY RUSTY … A CORRODED SERIAL NUMBER IS NOT ALTERED, CHANGED or OBLITERATED
The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Ford, No. 196 EDA 2016 (November 14, 2017), holding that since a person cannot be liable under statute for “defacing” a firearm when the manufacturer’s numbers corrode, it would be nonsensical to hold him liable under statute for “possessing” such a firearm.
Police were called to Ford’s home and, while there, observed Ford make a swinging motion with his arm and place an object on the kitchen chair next to him. Police ultimately recovered a .38 caliber silver handgun with the serial number obscured on the chair where they observed Ford make the swinging arm motion.
Ford was charged with persons not to possess firearms and possession of a firearm with an altered manufacturer’s number. During the non-jury trial, the parties stipulated that the serial number on the handgun was obscured by corrosion and recovered by polishing. The Court convicted Ford of both offenses. Ford appealed, arguing, in part, that that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction because this statute prohibiting the possession of firearms with an altered manufacturer’s number does not criminalize possession of firearms whose serial numbers are obscured by natural corrosion.
The statute at issue states, “No person shall possess a firearm which has had the manufacturer’s number integral to the frame or receiver altered, changed, removed or obliterated.”
The Superior Court noted that “although, in an academic sense, ‘corroded’ items might be ‘changed’ or ‘altered’ through imperceptible forces of chemistry, common sense does not support reading the applicable statute in this manner. The Court then recognized that it must listen attentively to what a statute “does not say” and that statute at issue does not say that a crime takes place when a person possesses a gun whose markings have become illegible due to natural causes.
Simply put, the question here is whether corrosion of manufacturer’s numbers renders them “altered, changed, removed or obliterated” within the meaning of the statute and the Superior Court concluded that corrosion does not fall within the plain meaning or ordinary usage of these terms.
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