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A makeshift knife is a knife, Md. appeals court rules in contraband case

A fingernail clipper ceases to be a cosmetic instrument and becomes a deadly device when filed to a point and placed on a handle, Maryland’s second-highest court has held in upholding a prison inmate’s conviction for knowingly possessing a weapon and contraband.

In its reported decision, the Court of Special Appeals rejected Michael Vanison’s argument through counsel that the altered clipper – found during a body cavity search – remained a “file” and not a weapon or contraband under Maryland law.

The appellate court said the statutory definition of weapon, and dictionary definition of contraband, in the prison context includes a “knife … or other article than can be used to kill or inflict bodily injury.”

“Mr. Vanison contends that the term ‘weapon’ should be construed to exclude objects of a class ‘akin to those normally carried in the ordinary course of business including a pen knife, a utility knife and a carpet knife,’” Judge Terrence M.R. Zic wrote for the court. “This characterization, however, contrasts with the circuit court’s express finding that the item was a fingernail clipper that was taken apart, sharpened and then added to a plastic handle’ and was a ‘makeshift knife. It is a knife.’ ”

In addition, “the ordinary understanding of ‘contraband’ would include a makeshift knife concealed in an inmate’s anus and discovered during a routine strip search during intake,” Zic wrote in the court’s 3-0 opinion.

Vanison’s appellate attorney, Claudia A. Cortese, declined to comment Friday on the court’s decision. Cortese is an assistant Maryland public defender.

Vanison, while serving a 15-year sentence for illegal gun possession, was transferred from the Maryland Correctional Training Center to Roxbury Correctional Institute, both in Hagerstown, on Jan. 31, 2020. During a strip search after arrival, an officer found the object inside Vanison and had him remove it and drop it to the floor, according to a set of facts agreed upon by Vanison and prosecutors in Washington County Circuit Court.

The circuit court judge, having concluded the file was a knife, found Vanison guilty of illegal possession of a weapon by an inmate, as well as possession of contraband. Vanison was sentenced to a year and a day for those offenses.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence last month, saying the evidence of unlawful possession was sufficient based on a four-part test.

“(1) The item was a ‘portion of a fingernail clipper that was attached to a plastic handle’ and ‘sharpened to a point;’ (2) it was found during a strip search as Mr. Vanison entered the (prison) for further incarceration; (3) and (4) the item was concealed in Mr. Vanison’s anus and it would be reasonable to infer that the concealment was intentional and with Mr. Vanison’s knowledge,” Zic wrote. “We are persuaded that there was legally sufficient evidence that Mr. Vanison carried the concealed knife with the intent to use it as a weapon.”

Zic was joined in the opinion by Judges Laura S. Ripken and Alexander Wright Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Michael Vanison v. State of Maryland, No. 296 September Term 2021.