In this post, I delve into the meaning of this statute. My goal is to point out the intricacies of applying this seemingly simple law. I also raise questions about some of the older case law interpreting this statute and ask whether it would still be good law today in light of the changing language of the law.
For the California Penal Code's definition of "dirk or dagger," one should look to section 16470, which states:
As used in this part, “dirk” or “dagger” means a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death. A nonlocking folding knife, a folding knife that is not prohibited by Section 21510, or a pocketknife is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.It would seem, from this section, that the definition of "dirk" or "dagger" is fairly broad, and encompasses a number of sharp objects that could be used as stabbing instruments.
Before delving into the layers of definitional peculiarities that the case law heaps onto this statute, it is important to note that in order to violate this statute, it is not enough that somebody simply carries and conceals one of these sharp objects. CALCRIM Jury Instruction 2501 specifies that a defendant must know that the device could be used as a stabbing weapon. You can read over the full instruction here, beginning at page 1645 of the pdf. Evidence that a defendant knew an object was dangerous could likely be established through the defendant's acknowledgment of the object's dangerous nature -- such as an admission that the defendant uses the item for self-defense.
While Penal Code section 16470 seems to provide a broad definition, it is important to note that the case law interpreting the definition of "dirk or dagger" adds some wrinkles to the analysis. In People v. LaGrande (1979) 98 Cal.App.3d 871, 873, for instance, the California Court of Appeal held that "an unaltered awl is not a dirk or dagger as a matter of law." Here's a picture of an awl, courtesy of The Hunger Games Wiki:
This looks pretty dangerous to me, so why isn't an awl a dirk or dagger? The LaGrande Court noted that another section of the California Penal Code -- section 4502 -- prohibits prisoners from possessing "any dirk or dagger or sharp instrument." The Court concluded that the "or sharp instrument" portion of the statute meant that the legislature intended "dirk or dagger" to have a "limited meaning." This limited meaning was not broad enough to encompass awls.
If an awl is not a dirk or dagger, then surely something like an ice pick couldn't be a dirk or dagger, right? Wrong. In In re Robert L. (1980) 112 Cal.App.3d 401, 404, the California Court of Appeal held that ice picks are indeed dirks or daggers, and noted that they can be used as effective stabbing instruments. The Court noted that the "attendant circumstances, including the time, place, destination of the possessor, the alteration of the object from standard form, and other relevant facts," should be considered when determining whether the object would be used for a dangerous purpose. In this case, the defendant admitted that he carried the ice pick for protection, which indicates that he knew it was dangerous, and was carrying it as a weapon rather than as a device to grab onto ice.
The law against dirks and daggers has gone through several changes, including a broadening of the "dirk or dagger" definition in 1995. In In re George W. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1208, 1212-1215, the California Court of Appeal noted the broader 1995 definition, but nevertheless held that a folding knife is not a dirk or dagger unless it is locked open. The Court of Appeal had applied similar logic in the case of People v. Sisneros (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 1454, 1457, where it held that a device that needed to be unscrewed, and then have another portion re-screwed into the device before it was a stabbing instrument was not a dirk or dagger in its original state because it was not "capable of ready use."
Does this mean that a switchblade is not a dirk or dagger when it is closed? No. The California Court of Appeal distinguished switchblades from folding knives in People v. Plumlee (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 935, 941, where it held that a switchblade without its blade exposed was still a dirk or dagger, since the blade could be "snapped into place in a fraction of a second and is therefore capable of ready use."
It is important to note that the California Court of Appeal has recognized the changes in the statutory definition of "dirk or dagger," and cautions against the reliance on older definitions. In People v. Mowatt (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 713, 719-20, the Court noted that the definition of "dirk or dagger" had been expanded in 1995 to cover normal devices that are "capable of inflicting serious harm." The earlier 1994 statute only applied to a "knife or other instrument . . . primarily designed, constructed, or altered to be a stabbing instrument designed to inflict great bodily injury or death."
Would the broader, 1995 statute, and the Mowatt Court's admonition against narrow definitions of "dirk or dagger" undermine the 1978 LaGrande Court's conclusion that awls are not dirks or daggers? It is difficult to say. The broader definition of "dirk or dagger," which is now found at Penal Code section 16470, would seem to apply to awls. But recall that the LaGrande Court did not base its decision on the section defining "dirk or dagger" -- but rather interpreted the definition of "dirk or dagger" in light of section 4502 of the Penal Code which seems to distinguish dirks and daggers from "sharp instrument[s]." Penal Code 4502 has the same wording today as it did at the time of the LaGrande case, so the Court's argument would still seem to apply.
On the other hand, while the wording of Penal Code section 4502 remains the same, Penal Code section 16470 provides a much broader definition of "dirk or dagger." Since this broadening of the "dirk or dagger" definition was enacted more recently than the enactment of Penal Code section 4502, there is a strong argument that the broad definition in section 16470 should control under the "last in time" canon of statutory interpretation.
Ultimately, I suspect that the circumstances of a case, and the evidence of whether a defendant knew that an item could be used as a deadly weapon, will control the outcome of the "dirk or dagger" determination. In Robert L., for example, the Court did not have much trouble concluding that the ice pick was a "dirk or dagger" in light of the defendant's admission that he used the ice pick for self-defense. The law has changed quite a bit since LaGrande, and I suspect that awl-wielding defendants are not as immune from prosecution as the dated case law seems to suggest.