Inoperable gun still a gun under Pennsylvania law

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A gun does not have to be in working, firing condition to trigger provisions of Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing laws, the state Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision made public on Wednesday.

The court ruled in the case of Sue Zortman, 43, who pleaded guilty in Clearfield County nearly four years ago to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, possession with intent to deliver and conspiracy.

The county judge imposed a five-year minimum mandatory sentence because a .357 magnum under a bed was recovered along with drugs during a search of Zortman’s Curwensville home.

Zortman testified at the trial of her boyfriend that the drugs were hers for personal use, according to the court ruling, and that she had the gun after having talked a co-defendant of her boyfriend’s out of using it to kill his ex-wife’s boyfriend in Florida.

The judge later granted a defense motion and lowered Zortman’s sentence to nine months in county jail plus nine years of probation because the gun lacked a firing pin and so did not fit the legal definition of a firearm.

But prosecutors appealed to Superior Court, which said in 2009 that the mandatory minimum sentence enhancement should apply.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, which tried the case, said the ruling added clarity to state law and provided guidance to judges and prosecutors.

“If it does come up again in the future, this case is going to have an impact on that,” said Lauren Bozart with the AG’s office.

The Supreme Court agreed, citing a legal definition that a firearm is something “designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile” by an explosion or gas expansion.

“We have no doubt that the handgun was ‘designed to’ fire a bullet,” wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille. “Arguably, firing a bullet is the only true ‘designed’ function — in fact, the essence — of a handgun, pistol or firearm.”

Castille said that fact remains even if the weapon is defective or temporarily inoperable.

“A car without gas does not lose its identity as an entity designed for locomotion,” the justice wrote. “A laptop computer does not cease to be a computer if its battery is removed. By the same reasoning, nor does a handgun lose its designed function merely because a critical piece is missing.”

Zortman’s defense attorney, Andrew Jay Shubin of State College, declined comment.

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