Possession of Weapon in School Safety Zone in Georgia
One of the more common serious offenses that Georgia juvenile courts deal with is possession of a weapon in a school safety zone. This offense is governed by O.C.G.A. § 16-11-127.1. Under Georgia law, all individuals (not just students) are forbidden from bringing weapons into school zones. Although the law applies to most individuals, students are most commonly charged with this offense, and this article will only focus on the crime as it pertains to individuals under the age of 17 who are being charged in a Georgia Juvenile Court. This article will discuss the locations, individuals, and particulars covered by the statute, as well as possible Georgia Juvenile Court penalties. Our Georgia Juvenile Possession of a Weapon Lawyers are here to help if you have been charged with this crime.
What locations are covered by the statute?
The law defines a school safety zone as a public or private elementary school, secondary school, or local school board, as well as public and private technical schools, vocational schools, colleges, universities, or institutions of postsecondary education. It also covers buses or other transportation furnished by a school, and “school functions,” which the law defines as a school-related “activity that occurs outside of a school safety zone for a public or private elementary or secondary school.”
Who is covered by the statute?
The law applies to most individuals. There are, however, certain exceptions. Students engaged in organized sport shooting events or firearm training courses are not subject to criminal or juvenile prosecution under the statute. Also exempt are a number of individuals who may carry weapons on school grounds for legitimate public safety reasons, such as school resource or other police officers. There are exceptions for individuals with a valid concealed-carry license (who are generally at least 18 years of age). However, because this article pertains primarily to juvenile court offenses, these exceptions will not be discussed in detail here.
What is classified as a “weapon”?
A “weapon” is defined broadly under the law; forbidden items include, of course, firearms, but also:
- Knives (such as “dirks, bowie knives, switchblade knives, ballistic knives, or any other knife having a blade of two or more inches”),
- Razors (such as straight-edge razors or razor blades”),
- Spring sticks,
- Knuckles (whether made from metal, thermoplastic, wood, or other material),
- Bats, clubs, or other bludgeon-type weapons,
- Any flailing instruments consisting of “two or more rigid parts connected in such a manner as to allow them to swing freely,” including nunchucks, nunchaku, shuriken, or fighting chains,
- Any disc “having at least two points or pointed blades which is designed to be thrown or propelled and which may be known as a throwing star or oriental dart,” and
- Any stun gun or taser.
For obvious reasons, certain objects which could potentially fall into one of these categories are nonetheless exempt. For example, baseball bats, hockey sticks, or other sports equipment are not forbidden.
When is Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone Classified as a Designated Felony in Georgia?
Georgia Juvenile Courts use a classification that is slightly more complicated than the Misdemeanor/Felony classification system that is used in State and Superior Courts. In Georgia Juvenile Courts, felonies may be “regular” felonies or “Designated Felonies.” Designated Felonies are further broken down into “Class A Designated Felonies” and “Class B Designated Felonies,” which Class A Designated Felonies being the more serious of the two. Class B Designated Felonies are nonetheless very serious and carry the real possibility of incarceration for adjudicated juveniles.
Violation of the Weapon in a School Safety Zone in Georgia statute may be classified as a Class B Designated Felony or as a regular felony. Under O.C.G.A. § 15-11-2, the section of the juvenile code that enumerates all of the designated felony offenses, the classification depends on several factors:
First, was the weapon a firearm or other dangerous weapon? Second, what are the facts surrounding the incident? Was there an “assault?” Finally, does the juvenile charged have any prior violations of the same statute?
Was the weapon a “firearm”?
If the weapon that the juvenile allegedly brought to a school is a “firearm,” the offense is classified as a Class B Designated Felony. But what is a “firearm,” exactly? In many cases, this is an easy question to answer. A semi-automatic pistol is a firearm, as is a revolver or a shotgun. In other cases it is less straightforward. For example, is an airsoft gun a “firearm?” Georgia juvenile court prosecutors frequently attempt to charge children with Class B felonies for possession of an airsoft gun in school, and no Georgia appellate courts have ruled on the issue of whether an airsoft gun is a “firearm.”
The Designated Felony statute looks to O.C.G.A. § 16-11-131 for its definition of a “firearm.” O.C.G.A. § 16-11-131 defines a “firearm” as any “handgun, rifle, or other weapon which will or can be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or electrical charge.” There is a strong argument to be made that compressed air, such as that which causes the projection of an airsoft pellet, is not explosive or electrical charge. Furthermore, the Georgia Court of Appeals has held, in determining what constitutes a “firearm,” that the basic rules of statutory interpretation “require exclusion of any weapon that is [not included in the statute] and which is outside the standard dictionary definition of a firearm.” Fields v. State, 216 Ga.App.184, (1995).
This is only one example of the ambiguities in the law, and it illustrates one of the many reasons why a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney is so important. A Georgia lawyer who only deals with adult cases might not even stop to think about whether an airsoft gun is a firearm, but that seemingly small oversight can have considerable consequences in a Georgia Juvenile Court because it marks the difference between a regular felony charge and a Designated Felony charge.
What are the facts surrounding the offense? Was there an “assault?”
Even if the weapon was not a firearm, the charge can be elevated to designated felony status if a juvenile brings a weapon to school and uses the weapon in an assault. In Georgia, an assault is defined as an attempt to commit a violent injury to another person, or an act that places another person in “reasonable apprehension” of imminent bodily injury. Assault does not require physical contact with the victim. Tuggle v. State, 145 Ga.App. 603, (1978). It does, however, require some act constituting a substantial step toward the commission of a battery. In the Interest of C.S., 251 Ga.App. 411, (2001). For example, lunging at another person with a weapon would likely be considered an assault sufficient to elevate the charge to a Designated Felony, but merely stating “I have a knife” with no overt action would probably not be sufficient.
Does the child have a prior adjudication for the same offense?
If the child has a prior adjudication for a violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-127.1, the second adjudication will be treated as a Designated Felony. This is true even if the first offense was not a Designated Felony-level offense.
Does the child have at least three (3) prior felony adjudications arising from separate incidents?
This section is not unique to the Georgia carrying a weapon in a school safety zone statute. Rather, a juvenile who commits four offenses which, if committed by an adult, would be felonies is eligible for Designated Felony treatment.
What are the possible consequences of a Georgia Juvenile Court adjudication for Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone?
If a child is adjudicated for Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone in a Georgia Juvenile Court, the judge is required to enter an order of disposition within 20 days.
If the offense is charged as a Class B Designated Felony, the judge must take into account not only the “best interests of the child,” but also the protection of the community. To this end, the judge must make a finding of whether the seriousness of the offense warrants placement in restrictive custody. During this phase of the disposition hearing, Georgia Juvenile Court judges typically examine a variety of factors, including:
- The age and maturity of the child,
- The needs and best interests of the child,
- record, background, and risk level of the child as calculated by a risk assessment,
- The nature and circumstances of the offense, including whether any injury resulted and the level of culpability of the child in carrying out the offense,
- The need for protection of the community, and
- The age and physical condition of the victim.
The judge actually hears testimony on these factors, which provides the child's Georgia Designated Felony Attorney the opportunity to cross-examine all witnesses and ultimately make an argument to the judge as to why restrictive custody is not the appropriate outcome for the child. If the judge determines that restrictive custody is appropriate, the child may be placed in DJJ custody for an initial period of up to 36 months. Up to 18 months of this time may be served in restrictive custody in a Youth Detention Center.
If the judge decides that restrictive custody is not necessary, he or she may order:
- Counseling services for the child and/or the parent;
- That the child obtain a high school diploma or GED;
- Community service;
- A fine; and/or
- Suspension of the child's driver's license;
- Placement of the child in an institution, camp, or another facility for delinquent children;
- Commitment to the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice; or
- Placement in a Georgia Juvenile Detention Center for up to 30 days (with credit for any time served at the time of arrest).
These are the same dispositions that the judge may order if the child has been adjudicated on the charge of Non-Designated Felony Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone.
Many people have the mistaken assumption that juvenile courts need not be taken seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. Regardless of whether it is being charged as a regular felony offense or as a Class B Designated Felony, carrying a weapon in a school safety zone in Georgia is a serious offense that carries the potential for serious punishment, including incarceration. That is why it is of the utmost importance to hire a Georgia Possession of a Weapon Lawyer who is familiar with the nuances of juvenile law and who can make the best case to keep your child out of juvenile detention. If your child has been charged with Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone in Georgia, call us today.