469 U.S. 1146 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

WRIGHT v. NEW JERSEY , 469 U.S. 1146 (1985)

469 U.S. 1146

Charles WRIGHT
No. 84-5060

Supreme Court of the United States

January 14, 1985

The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

The appellant Charles Wright was convicted of possessing an "exacto" knife. Under New Jersey law, possession of this sort of object is entirely legal in most circumstances; possession becomes unlawful only " under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have." N.J.Stat.Ann. 2C:39-5d (West 1982) (emphasis added).1 As construed by the state courts, although this statute requires proof that the defendant "knowingly" possessed the object in question, there is no requirement that he have done so with any unlawful purpose.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the constitutionality of 2C:39-5d in this and a companion case, see State v. Wright, 96 N.J. 170, 475 A.2d 38 (1984); State v. Lee, 96 N.J. 156, 475

Page 469 U.S. 1146 , 1147

A.2d 31 (1984), with one justice arguing in dissent that the operative standard "not manifestly appropriate" is "so lacking in any precise meaning as to defy definition," State v. Lee, supra, at 168, 475 A.2d, at 37 (Clifford, J., dissenting). I believe this appeal presents the substantial question whether 2C:39-5d is impermissibly vague in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from the Court's dismissal of the appeal for want of a substantial federal question.


Wright, the subject of several outstanding arrest warrants, was apprehended while conversing with a friend on a street corner in Teaneck, New Jersey. The arresting officers searched Wright at police headquarters, where they found the exacto knife in question concealed inside one of his socks. The instant prosecution for violation of 2C:39-5d followed.

At trial, Wright contended that he had not intended to use the knife against person or property and that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. The trial court rejected these arguments. With respect to the question of Wright's intent, the court instructed the jury that it was " not necessary that the State prove that [the] defendant possessed the weapon with a purpose to use it unlawfully against the person or property of another." Juris. Statement 4. As for the definition of the "not manifestly appropriate" standard, which Wright contended was meaningless, the court instructed: "If you . . . find that the circumstances under which the weapon was possessed could not be easily understood or recognized as being appropriate to a lawful use of the instrument in question here then possession of the weapon . . . is prohibited." State v. Wright, supra, at 172, 475 A.2d, at 39 (emphasis added). Wright was convicted as charged and sentenced to 200 days in the Bergen County jail.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed Wright's conviction, reasoning that the legislature could not have intended to impose criminal sanctions on one whose conduct merely "was not 'easily understood or recognized' from the circumstances." 187 N.J.Super. 160, 164, 453 A.2d 1352, 1354 (1982). The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the Appellate Division, however, and concluded that the trial court's interpretation properly reflected the legislature's intent in enacting [469 U.S. 1146 , 1148]

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