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New Jersey weapons offenses 4: Lawful weapon, unlawful purpose?

Have you been arrested because you were holding a realistic-looking toy gun? Facing charges for having a community gun? You may have been charged under New Jersey Statute 2C:39-4 - possession of weapons for unlawful purposes.

We've been discussing the four main groups of New Jersey weapons offenses. It's important to note that we have not been covering federal weapon crimes, and to realize that a blog post can never suffice for legal advice. That said, though the four groups in New Jersey are:

  1. Possession of a prohibited weapon
  2. Possession of a weapon without the required permits or licenses
  3. Possession of a weapon by someone prohibited from having one
  4. Possession of weapons for unlawful purposes

What is an unlawful purpose, and how does the government know?

According to the statute, possessing a weapon for an unlawful purpose is defined as "with a purpose to use it unlawfully against the person or property of another." In other words, you're guilty if the prosecutor can prove your reason for having the weapon was in order to commit a crime.

The degree of the crime you could be charged with depends on the type of weapon. Possession of a firearm, an explosive substance or a destructive device for the purpose of committing a crime is a second-degree crime, meaning a conviction can get you five to 10 years in prison.

Also a second-degree crime is the possession, receipt or transfer of a "community gun." A community gun is one that at least two people are using to engage in criminal activity. Besides being a second-degree crime, however, a community gun conviction gets you a mandatory minimum sentence of at least three years during which you're not eligible for parole.

If the weapon isn't a gun, possessing it for an unlawful purpose is a third-degree crime, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

A somewhat surprising fourth-degree crime is the possession of a realistic toy gun "under circumstances that would lead an observer to reasonably believe that it is possessed for an unlawful purpose." Brandishing that toy gun could get you 18 months behind bars.

How does the government know your purpose for owning a gun? They're not mind readers, right? Just as in every case, they'll have to bring forward evidence -- and they'll have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

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