ANALYSIS OF MAY 13, 2021 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted May 13, 2021) Today VANA marks the birth of the greatest living musical genius of our age. Stevie Wonder turns 71 today. (If Jimi Hendrix had lived this long, I might have had a different candidate for that honor.) As the wise saying goes, “Talent hits a target that others can’t hit. Genius hits a target that others can’t see.” It’s ironic that a blind man has seen so much that we sighted folks haven’t.
The Supreme Court decides a single appeal by published opinion today. In Myers v. Commonwealth, the justices take up a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon. The weapon, a handgun, was contained inside a fully-zipped backpack on the passenger floorboard of a car. Myers sat in the driver’s seat when law enforcement confronted him. When they conducted a search and found the weapon, he eventually admitted that it belonged to him.
Indicted for carrying a concealed weapon, Myers insisted at trial that a statutory exception applied to him. Specifically, he cited Code §18.2-308(C)(8), which excludes convictions of a person “who may lawfully possess a firearm and is carrying a handgun while in a personal, private motor vehicle or vessel and such handgun is secured in a container or compartment in the vehicle or vessel.”
The judge wasn’t having any of it; the circuit court convicted Myers after a bench trial, and a panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed. But the justices granted a writ to consider the statute and decide whether it applies in this situation.
Justice Kelsey writes a short opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court. The court reviews its prior decision on carrying concealed weapons, starting with the famous saddlebags case, Sutherland v. Commonwealth from 1909. There, the court had held that a weapon contained in a saddlebag with a closed flap wasn’t being “carried about the person” as contemplated in the statute because it wasn’t “readily accessible for use or surprise” by the owner.
More recently the court peeled back that holding a bit in Schaaf v. Commonwealth, from 1979. There, the court upheld a conviction for carrying a handgun into a courthouse, contained in a woman’s purse. Justice Kelsey’s unease with this distinction is obvious; he describes the Schaaf ruling as an attempt to distinguish the earlier holding, adding that the 1979 court may have been “wincing a bit from this scant distinction.”
Today the court sides with its Taft-era judicial ancestors, holding as a matter of law that a gun in a zipped-up backpack is secured within the meaning of the statutory exception. The court holds that this is akin to the situation in Sutherland: A modern backpack is analogous to a set of saddlebags. It’s unnecessary to overrule Schaaf because of at least one glaring distinction: Ms. Schaaf wasn’t in a private vehicle or vessel. The court accordingly reverses the conviction and dismisses the indictment.
In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes: Reversals in criminal appeals are rare birds indeed. One possible explanation for the court’s comparative leniency here may be the subtext of the Second Amendment. Justice Kelsey doesn’t mention the amendment in today’s opinion, but I think I see its tincture in the holding.