Many people carry knives or similar tools for work that can be used as weapons, aggressively or defensively.
On June 17, 2021, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division decided State of New Jersey v. Kephine Oguta, holding that self-defense is a viable defense to unlawful possession of a weapon in some contexts, and in those contexts, the trial judge must instruct the jury as to self-defense.
The facts in this case were as follows: The defendant, Mr. Oguta, got into a fight with his neighbors during which he stabbed one of them, Mitchell. The State charged Mr. Oguta with several weapons offenses and aggravated assault. There was no plea agreement, and a trial was conducted. During the trial, Mitchell told one story of the fight and Mr. Oguta told a very different story. The most important distinction between the two versions of the event was whether Mr. Oguta was the aggressor or was defending himself. Mr. Oguta’s defense lawyer asked the court to instruct the jury about self-defense for all the charges against him, but the court refused to do so relating to the unlawful possession of a weapon charge and only did so for the assault charge and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose charge. The jury convicted Mr. Oguta only of the unlawful possession charge.
Citing to New Jersey Supreme Court precedent, the Appellate Division stated self-defense is appropriate on an unlawful possession of a weapon charge when the defendant makes spontaneous use of a weapon in response to an immediate danger. In this case, because the defendant testified, he possessed the weapon for a lawful purpose, to use at work, and only spontaneously drew upon it for self-defense in response to an immediate danger, an attack by his neighbors, the trial judge should have instructed the jury on self-defense. Further, the Appellate Division concluded the failure to instruct on self-defense could produce an unjust result, requiring the conviction to be vacated for a new trial. This conclusion was supported by the fact the jury acquitted Mr. Oguta of the two charges on which a self-defense instruction was given to the jury.
The facts of this case are not uncommon. Physical altercations happen regularly. Almost always, there are multiple versions of the events. Quite frequently, one or both parties claim self-defense, and often one or more parties has a weapon. Many people carry knives or similar tools for work that can be used as weapons, aggressively or defensively. In these circumstances, it would be unfair to penalize someone defending him or herself with a knife or tool from presenting a self-defense argument.