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Commonwealth v. McCoy

January 23, 2009

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
JAMES MCCOY, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of the Superior Court, No. 2642 EDA 2005, entered on June 26, 2007, affirming the judgment of sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County entered on April 27, 2005, at No. CP-51-CR-0900691-2004.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Chief Justice Castille

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, JJ.

Argued: April 14, 2008

OPINION

The question presented in this appeal is whether Section 2707.1 of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2707.1, entitled "Discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure," encompasses a situation where an individual discharges a firearm while inside an occupied structure, rather than firing into the structure from a location outside of the structure. For the following reasons, we hold that Section 2707.1 does not apply to such conduct, and we reverse appellant's conviction for discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure.

The undisputed facts that gave rise to this appeal are as follows. At about 7 p.m. on July 27, 2004, appellant James McCoy entered an Old Country Buffet restaurant located at 4640 Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia. The restaurant was quite busy, with about 250 customers present. Appellant approached the manager, James Hargrove, and informed him that he had eaten at the restaurant earlier in the day and had become ill as a result. Mr. Hargrove, who did not recall seeing appellant that day, asked him a series of questions regarding what he ate and whether he had a receipt. While they were speaking, a large group of customers entered the restaurant and Mr. Hargrove went to his office to "attend to business for them."*fn1 Appellant followed Mr. Hargrove to his office, where Mr. Hargrove asked him to wait in a chair outside of the office while he took care of matters inside his office. Appellant initially waited, but after a short time he followed Mr. Hargrove into the office, reached into his pocket, and withdrew a handgun. Upon seeing the gun, Mr. Hargrove ran out of the office and into the kitchen area. Appellant pursued him into the dining area of the restaurant, fired his gun approximately five times in the direction of the kitchen, and then left the premises. Fortunately, no one was physically injured.

On March 16, 2005, following a non-jury trial, appellant was convicted of carrying a firearm without a license,*fn2 carrying a firearm on a public street,*fn3 possession of a firearm by a convicted felon,*fn4 possession of an instrument of crime,*fn5 simple assault,*fn6 recklessly endangering another person,*fn7 and discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure.*fn8 On April 27, 2005, appellant was sentenced to four to eight years' incarceration for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, one to five years' incarceration for possessing an instrument of crime, and one to two years' incarceration for simple assault, with all sentences to be served consecutively. No further penalties were imposed for the convictions for carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm on a public street, recklessly endangering another person, and discharging a firearm into an occupied structure.

Appellant appealed to the Superior Court, raising two issues. First, notwithstanding that no punishment was imposed for his conviction for discharging a firearm into an occupied structure, appellant argued that the conviction should be vacated because he fired his gun while already inside the structure. Second, he raised a claim concerning the Sentencing Guidelines, an issue not now before this Court.

In its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) opinion, the trial court held that appellant violated Section 2707.1's prohibition against discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure by firing his gun while he was within the Old Country Buffet. Section 2707.1(a) defines the offense as follows: "A person commits an offense if he knowingly, intentionally or recklessly discharges a firearm from any location into an occupied structure." The trial court acknowledged that applying the plain meaning of "into" would necessitate that the defendant be outside the structure in order to fire into it. However, the trial court also noted that the statutory language dictated that the shooter could be firing "from any location" into the occupied structure. The trial court determined that the language "from any location" modified the word "into," requiring a finding that the statute encompassed firing a weapon both into and from within the occupied structure. Thus, the trial court determined that appellant was appropriately found guilty because he fired his gun into the kitchen area of the restaurant, which satisfies the definition of an occupied structure under the statute.

The Superior Court affirmed in a published opinion. Commonwealth v. McCoy, 928 A.2d 306 (Pa. Super. 2007). The court viewed appellant's claim that he could not be convicted of discharging a firearm into an occupied structure when he was inside the structure at the time as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, noting that appellant argued that there was no evidence that he was outside of the structure at the time he fired his gun. Agreeing with appellant that the language of Section 2707.1 is unambiguous, the court focused on the meaning of the phrase "from any location," but failed to discuss the meaning of the word "into" or its effect on the statute's meaning. The Superior Court concluded that the plain language of the statute prohibited discharging a firearm "from any location;" therefore, the statute did not require that the defendant be outside the occupied structure when the gun was fired. In a footnote, the Superior Court opined that an individual could even commit an offense under Section 2707.1 by discharging a firearm from one room to another within an occupied structure. Thus, the Superior Court concluded that, because the General Assembly had included the words "from any location" in the statute, the "clear and unambiguous wording of [Section] 2707.1 does not limit a defendant's location to outside of a structure when discharging a firearm." McCoy, 928 A.2d at 311. The Superior Court acknowledged that this was a case of first impression in the Commonwealth, but dismissed appellant's citations to authority from other jurisdictions as irrelevant because the cases were "factually distinguishable" from the case at bar. Id. at 310.

We granted allowance of appeal because the language of Section 2707.1 is arguably open to more than one interpretation, and the Superior Court's decision was the first instance of a court in Pennsylvania interpreting the meaning and application of the statute. Because a question of statutory interpretation is a pure question of law, our scope of review is plenary. Tritt v. Cortes, 851 A.2d 903, 905 (Pa. 2004).

Appellant first points to the title of Section 2707.1, "Discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure" (emphasis added) and the statutory language outlawing the "discharge [of] a firearm from any location into an occupied structure," and argues that the language is clear and free from ambiguity. He contends that, in order for the lower courts' interpretation of the statute to be logical, additional language must be added or assumed: "from any location into, or from within, an occupied structure." This result, appellant argues, cannot stand because this Court has held that "a court may not achieve an acceptable construction of a penal statute by reading into the statute terms that broaden its scope," quoting Commonwealth v. Scolieri, 813 A.2d 672, 678 (Pa. 2002). According to appellant, the Superior Court's determination that the words "from any location" do not limit a defendant's location to the outside of a structure when discharging a firearm creates an ambiguity in the statute where none previously existed. Further, the Superior Court's interpretation gives no weight to the statute's title or the requirement that the firearm be discharged "into" the structure. To the contrary, appellant claims, the language "from any location," when read in context with the statute's title, leads to the conclusion that the shooter must be outside the building when he discharges his firearm in order for a conviction under this statute to lie.

Appellant thus argues that this case should be decided on the plain language of the statute, and that the word "into" clearly signifies that a defendant must necessarily be located outside of a structure in order to fire into it. He claims that if the Legislature had intended that a defendant could be convicted under this statute for firing a gun while inside a building, it would have included words to so indicate but declined to do so. Further, appellant contends that the lower courts' interpretation of the statute violates the rule of lenity, which requires that penal statutes are always to be construed strictly. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(b)(1) (penal statutes shall be strictly construed). While maintaining that the statute as written is clear and free from ambiguity, appellant asserts that the ambiguity created by the lower courts also justifies the invocation of the rule that "any ambiguity in a penal state should be interpreted in favor of the defendant." Commonwealth v. Shiffler, 879 A.2d 185, 189 (Pa. 2002). Appellant asserts that the lower courts' interpretation violates this rule by construing the ambiguity in favor of the Commonwealth -- that is, in favor of broadening the statute to criminalize additional activity without giving fair notice that such activity is encompassed by the statute.

Further, appellant notes that the legislative history of Section 2707.1 is limited; and he points to similar statutes from our sister states and case law interpreting them to support his assertion that the Legislature enacted Section 2707.1 specifically to address the phenomenon of "drive-by shootings." Appellant's Brief at 10 (citing People v. Simpson, 93 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003) (Colorado statute prohibiting firing "into any dwelling or any other building" was intended to punish random drive-by and walk-by shootings); State v. Caldwell, 901 P.2d 35 (Kan. App. 1995) (purpose of similar Kansas statute is to ensure that drive-by shootings are graded as felonies)). Appellant argues that the Pennsylvania General Assembly had a similar purpose in enacting ...


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