State v. Quinn

Annotate this Case
State v. Quinn  (94-675); 165 Vt 136; 675 A.2d 1336

[Opinion Filed 22-Mar-1996]

       NOTICE:  This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under
  V.R.A.P. 40 as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont
  Reports.  Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions,
  Vermont Supreme Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801 of
  any errors in order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes
  to press.

                                 No. 94-675

State of Vermont                                  Supreme Court

                                                  On Appeal from
    v.                                            District Court of Vermont,
                                                  Unit No. 1, Windham Circuit

Matthew S. Quinn                                  November Term, 1995

Paul F. Hudson, J.

       Dan M. Davis, Windham County State's Attorney, and James Maxwell,
  Deputy State's Attorney, Brattleboro, for plaintiff-appellant

       Robert Appel, Defender General, and William A. Nelson, Appellate
  Attorney, Montpelier, for defendant-appellee

PRESENT:  Allen, C.J., Gibson, Dooley, Morse and Johnson, JJ.

       DOOLEY, J.   Defendant was charged with possession of a destructive
  device, a homemade pipebomb filled with smokeless gunpowder, in violation
  of 13 V.S.A. § 1604.  The trial court dismissed the charge concluding that
  because the device was made with gunpowder, it fell within an exception to
  the crime set forth in 13 V.S.A. § 1603(2).  The State appeals the trial
  court's ruling.  We reverse.

       The facts are not in dispute.  On July 23, 1994, the state police
  received a call from a custodian of Bellows Falls Union High School, who
  told the police that he had found a pipebomb on the school's front
  doorsteps.  The pipebomb was seven inches in length and one inch in
  diameter.  It was made out of smokeless gunpowder from shotgun shells,
  paper, and a hollow metal broom handle capped with wax.  A witness had
  observed two boys running away from the front entrance of the school, and
  then saw a smoking object on the front school doorsteps.  Although smoke
  emanated from the pipebomb, it did not explode.  A trooper


       questioned defendant Matthew Quinn, who admitted making the pipebomb,
  but denied that he intended to destroy property or endanger other people. 
  He told the officer that he sought only to make a noise, like that of a
  firecracker.  On July 28, 1994, the State charged defendant with possession
  of a destructive device in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 1604, a felony that
  imposes a maximum sentence of ten years.

       The sole issue on appeal (FN1) is whether a pipebomb made of smokeless
  gunpowder is a "destructive device" pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 1604, which
  states:  "A person who manufactures, possesses, stores or transports a
  destructive device shall be imprisoned for not more than 10 years . . . ." 
  The term "destructive device" is defined in § 1603(1)(A) to include any
  "explosive . . . bomb."  The State alleges that the device defendant placed
  on the schoolhouse doorstep fits within the definition and, therefore,
  defendant possessed a destructive device.

       Defendant responds that because the explosive ingredient of the
  pipebomb is smokeless gunpowder it is not a destructive device as defined
  in 13 V.S.A. § 1603(1)(A).  First, § 1603(1) states that "A destructive
  device does not include a firearm or ammunition therefor."  Second, the
  term "explosive," a component part of the definition of destructive device,
  is itself defined to exclude "a firearm or ammunition therefor or any
  components of ammunition for a firearm including primers, smokeless powder
  or black gunpowder."  From these statutory provisions, defendant argues
  that the plain meaning of the statutory scheme is that a bomb made from
  smokeless gunpowder is not a destructive device and, therefore, he did not
  violate § 1604.  The trial court accepted defendant's argument and
  dismissed the case.

       The outcome of this case depends upon how we construe 13 V.S.A. §§
  1603(1)(A), 1603(2) and 1604.  On the one hand, we do not want to
  substitute a general definition of "explosive" for a specific definition
  supplied by the Legislature.  See In re Spring Brook Farm


  Found., Inc., 6 Vt. L.W. 316, 318 (1995).  On the other hand, we must be
  careful not to import definitions from inapplicable statutes.  See Vermont
  Agency of Natural Resources v. Handy Family Enters., ___Vt.___, ___, 660 A.2d 309, 314 (1995).  Although we have adopted a number of aids to
  determine the proper construction of statutes, they are not rigid rules. 
  See Kellogg-Hubbard Library v. Labor Relations Bd., 162 Vt. 571, 575, 649 A.2d 784, 786 (1994). Overall, our aim is to implement the intent of the
  Legislature to the extent we can determine it. See State v. Therrien, 161
  Vt. 26, 31, 633 A.2d 272, 275 (1993).

       In this case, defendant relies upon what he perceives to be the "plain
  meaning" of the words of the statute.  Even if we agreed that the plain
  meaning rule is hard and fast, we cannot conclude that it applies here. 
  Defendant's main argument is that the term "explosive," as defined in §
  1603(2), is a component part of the definition of "destructive device," as
  set forth in § 1603(1)(A), and that an explosive, as so defined, cannot be
  made of smokeless gunpowder. We note, however, that the term "explosive" is
  defined as a noun in § 1603(2) but is used as an adjective in § 1603(1)(A). 
  Moreover, the definition section applies to a number of statutory sections
  in Chapter 37 of Title 13.  In many, the term "explosive" is used as a noun
  and clearly embodies the definition of § 1603(2).  See 13 V.S.A. § 1606
  (regulating possession and use of "an explosive"); id. § 1607 (regulating
  sale of "an explosive"); id. § 1608 (use of "an explosive" to injure); id.
  § 1609 (requiring license to "give, transfer or sell an explosive").  Thus,
  the definition of "explosive" as a noun in § 1603(2) performs an important
  function in Chapter 37 without necessarily controlling the definition of
  "destructive device" in § 1603(1)(A).

       The difference in usage might not alone dissuade us from defendant's
  interpretation.  In this case, however, the definition of destructive
  device was taken, almost verbatim, from a federal statutory model.  See 18
  U.S.C. § 921(a)(4).  As the State points out, the legislative history
  indicates this source of our statutory language.  See Minutes, Senate
  Judiciary Committee Hearing on H.236 (April 13, 1971) (statement of Senator
  West: "This is copied, as I understand it, out of the federal statutes.");
  see also Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Elec. Co. v. State,


  161 Vt. 346, 355, 639 A.2d 995, 1002 (1994) (legislative history may be
  used to aid statutory construction).  There is no indication in the federal
  statute that the term "explosive" is defined narrowly, as in 13 V.S.A. §
  1603(2), in defining, in turn, a "destructive device."(FN2)

       We have encountered before the difficulties created when statutory
  models are integrated with locally drafted provisions.  See State v.
  Papazoni, 159 Vt. 578, 582, 622 A.2d 501, 503 (1993).  As we said in
  Papazoni, the result "often does not produce a `seamless web.'"  Id.
  (quoting Martel v. Stafford, 157 Vt. 604, 609, 603 A.2d 345, 348 (1991)). 
  We are reluctant to conclude that the Legislature intended to distort the
  federal definition of destructive evidence by subjecting it to a special,
  narrow definition of explosive.

       There is another important reason to reject defendant's construction
  of the statutes.  In adopting the federal definition of destructive device,
  the Legislature added narrowing language to address the policy underlying
  defendant's argument.  The added language states that a "destructive device
  does not include a firearm or ammunition therefor."  13 V.S.A. § 1603(1).
  The point of this language is to make clear that a firearm or its
  ammunition is not a destructive device so that possession of these items is
  not a crime.  This language is superfluous if the term "explosive," as used
  in defining destructive device, embodies the definition of "explosive" in §
  1603(2) because that definition includes the identical language.

       It is particularly significant that the limitation added to the §
  1603(1) definition of "destructive device" does not include the language
  contained in the definition of "explosive" covering "components of
  ammunition for a firearm including primers, smokeless powder or black
  gunpowder."  13 V.S.A. § 1603(2).  We take this omission as an indication
  that the Legislature did not intend to create an exception for bombs made
  from components of


  ammunition, exactly the situation that is present here.  In re Stowe Club
  Highlands, 6 Vt. L.W. 291, 293 (1995) (where ordinance goes only so far in
  authorizing reconstruction of nonconforming use, we infer drafters intended
  to prohibit reconstruction in other circumstances).

       Finally, if possible, we must avoid construing statutory language in a
  way that produces an irrational result.  See State v. Blondin, ___Vt.___,
  ___, 665 A.2d 587, 589 (1995).  It is reasonable and understandable why the
  Legislature would be clear that it did not want to criminalize possession
  of firearms and ammunition.  On the other hand, we can conceive of no
  reason why the Legislature would make it a crime to manufacture or possess
  a dangerous bomb made from nitroglycerine while imposing no criminal
  consequences on the manufacture or possession of an equally dangerous bomb
  made from gunpowder.  Although we construe penal statutes most favorably to
  the accused, we do not do so to defeat legislative intent or reach an
  absurd result.  See State v. Frechette, 161 Vt. 233, 234, 637 A.2d 1080,
  1081 (1993).  We believe that defendant's construction produces an
  irrational result which we should avoid.

       The term "explosive" is not normally defined to contain any limits on
  the tendency to explode.  See American Heritage Dictionary at 463 (1979). 
  Thus, except for a "firearm or ammunition therefor," 13 V.S.A. § 1603(1),
  any explosive bomb is a destructive device as defined in § 1603(1) and used
  in § 1604.  The district court erred in dismissing this case on the

       Reversed and remanded.

                              FOR THE COURT:

                              Associate Justice


FN1.  On appeal, the State withdrew its argument concerning a motion
  made pursuant to V.R.Cr.P. 12(d)(1).  Accordingly, we do not address that

FN2.  The federal statute, although it contains many definitions, does
  not define "explosive." See generally 18 U.S.C. § 921(a).  It does provide
  a comprehensive scheme for regulation of firearms and ammunition so it is
  unnecessary to exclude these items from its coverage.  See generally id. §§

Some case metadata and case summaries were written with the help of AI, which can produce inaccuracies. You should read the full case before relying on it for legal research purposes.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.