Review of PC 171.5 Possessing a Weapon at California Airports
Penal Code 171.5 PC makes it a crime for anyone to knowingly possess certain weapons within the sterile area of a California airport, which also includes a frame, barrel, magazine of a firearm, among others.
The sterile area of airports starts where people enter screening at the security checkpoint operated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Readers should note that possession of weapons at a California airport could also be filed as a federal offense under federal laws.
While the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear arms, the state and federal government have the legal right to place some reasonable restrictions limiting where someone has the right to possess a firearm.
Further, in the state of California, there are certain people who are normally prohibited from possessing a gun, such as convicted felons, drug addicts, someone with a mental illness, and anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime.
Put simply, if you are found in possession of a weapon in the secure section of any airport in California, you could be facing significant criminal charges.
As noted, not only is it a violation of the law to bring weapons into airports, but because airports are administered at the federal level, you could also be charged with a federal crime that carries more severe penalties.
Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will take a closer look at the laws below.
Overview of Possession of a Weapon at the Airport Law
As noted, Penal Code 171.5(b) PC is the California law that prohibits possession of a weapon at any airport. This law states that It is:
- "unlawful for any person to knowingly possess a weapon within any sterile area of an airport or a passenger vessel terminal."
Violating this law is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to $1000 in fines and up to six months in the county jail—although judges have the latitude to impose summary probation as an alternative to jail time depending on the circumstances.
There are a few related offenses that could also be filed by the prosecutor in addition to PC 171.5, such as carrying a concealed firearm under Penal Code 25400(a)(2), or carrying a loaded firearm in a public place under Penal Code 25850(a).
As noted above, a "sterile area" is an area, including airport security checkpoints, in which airport authorities control access.
Generally speaking, it's a crime to carry any kind of weapon or weapon component beyond the TSA screening checkpoint at the airport.
What Constitutes a Weapon?
PC 171.5 includes a comprehensive list of what the State of California deems a "weapon." The list includes, but is not limited to:
- Any firearm;
- Individual firearm components (e.g., frame, barrel, magazine);
- Knives with blades exceeding four inches;
- Box cutters;
- Switchblade knife,
- Straight razors;
- Tear gas;
- Tasers and stun guns;
- BB guns, pellet guns, or paint guns.
It's important to note that the law also includes imitation or replica weapons as part of these prohibited items.
So if you bring any type of imitation firearm, replica grenade, etc., past security, you can be charged with this crime the same as if you had possessed an authentic weapon.
What are the Related Offenses?
Possession at the Airport is governed by Penal Code 171.5(b), but California law prohibits possession of a weapon in other public areas as well. Similar offenses include:
- Possession of a Weapon at a California Public Transit Facility (Penal Code 171.7 PC): Like airports, possession of a weapon in sterile areas of public transit facilities (e.g., bus or train stations) is a misdemeanor;
- Possession of a Weapon in Public Buildings or Public Meetings (Penal Code 171b PC): a "wobbler" offense that can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony;
- Possession of a Weapon at Government Residences (Penal Code 171d PC): this law is a "wobbler" that makes it a crime to carry a weapon onto the grounds of the Governor's mansion, the residence of any legislator, or the residence of any constitutional officer.
In addition, the following offenses are often charged alongside PC 171.5(b) and can result in increased penalties:
- Carrying a Loaded Firearm (Penal Code 25850): The crime of carrying a loaded firearm prohibits carrying a loaded firearm in public, concealed or unconcealed. This offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000;
- Carrying a Concealed Firearm (Penal Code 25400): PC 25400 specifies that it's generally illegal for anyone to carry a concealed firearm in their vehicle or on their person in public. This crime is punishable by up to three years in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000;
- Felon in Possession of a Firearm (Penal Code 29800(a)(1): This statute prohibits convicted felons or those with felony warrants from owning, purchasing, or possessing a firearm.
- Relinquishment of Firearms by Convicted Persons (Penal Code 29810): This statute requires people convicted of certain misdemeanor or felony crimes to relinquish all firearms they own or possess.
Finally, because airports are federally controlled, possessing a weapon at the airport is also a violation of federal law.
While most instances of weapons at California airports are charged under state laws, the federal government may opt to charge you with a federal crime in some cases--for example, if you created a dangerous situation or brought the weapon onto a plane.
Common Defenses for Possession of a Weapon at the Airport
Being caught with a weapon in a secure area of the airport does not mean an automatic conviction.
A good criminal defense attorney can offer compelling defenses based on mitigating or extenuating circumstances. Some common defenses to this offense may include:
You didn't know you were carrying a weapon. The law states you must "knowingly" possess the weapon to be convicted of the crime. We may be able to argue that you accidentally carried it past security or simply forgot it was inside your luggage or carry-on bag.
Violation of probable cause. Officers cannot detain or arrest you without probable cause. If the circumstances of your arrest had no probable cause, the evidence is not admissible in court.
You were under duress. In some cases, the lawyer may be able to argue that you were forced to carry the weapon under threat of harm.
As noted, the statutory language within Penal Code 171.5 PC says that a defendant can only be found guilty if they knowingly possessed a prohibited weapon at an airport.
Put simply, we could use a legal defense of while the defendant did take a prohibited weapon into the airport, they did not know it. Perhaps someone else put the weapon into their luggage or bag without their knowledge.
Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County and you can contact our law firm for a consultation by calling (877) 781-1570, or fill out our contact form.