March 28, 2008

Registering Hands As Deadly Weapons

Stupid Question ™
April 4, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: Has anyone ever actually had to register their hands as deadly weapons?
—Bob Sindledecker

A: No. The only thing close is an outfit called the International Lethal Defense Combat Organization, which for a $25 membership fee will send you a “document which testifies that your hands are registered” with them.

It’s unknown who started the hand-registration myth, but it’s still current among sportswriters and martial artists.

No only is there no hand registration; there’s no law that specifically classifies any body part as a deadly weapon, or that places professional or trained fighters under any special restrictions. However, fists—anybody’s fists—are sometimes classed as deadly weapons, and the whole concept is a legal gray area.

The distinction is important because use of a deadly weapon upgrades an assault or battery to a more serious crime.

Recently, the fists-as-weapons concept has begun appearing in criminal cases involving boxers. This concept was absent from such cases as late as the 1950s, when Sonny Liston was getting into street brawls. But when former World Boxing Association heavyweight champ Michael Dokes was charged with beating his wife in 1998, his attorney was careful to note that he didn’t used closed fists, fearing they’d be classified as deadly weapons.

In 1999, North American Boxing Federation super-middleweight champ Scott Pemberton was charged with “assault and battery with a dangerous weapon” for punching a man, but this was later reduced to simple assault and battery.

Legal definitions of “deadly weapons” vary state to state, but are generally very broad and can include just about anything, depending on use. Automobiles, heavy boots and toilet-plunger handles have all been deemed deadly weapons. (Note that you don’t have to register toilet plungers.)

Ohio’s definition is “any instrument, device, or thing capable of inflicting death, and designed or specifically adapted for use as a weapon, or possessed, carried, or used as a weapon.”

This would seem to cover the human hand. Indeed, in a landmark 1960 case, it was ruled that hands could be considered deadly weapons. But in fact, legal interpretation is unclear.

In recent years Ohio appellate courts have issued contradictory rulings on the subject. A 1999 ruling said “there is no question” that fists can be deadly weapons; a 2000 ruling affirmed a lower court’s jury instruction that fists can’t be considered deadly weapons. And a 1996 ruling said that “while human fists may not be deadly weapons per se,” it was reasonable to consider them as such in a specific beating case (incidentally, one involving a former boxer).

For comparison, in 1992 a Florida court shot down fists-as-weapons, saying it was an unconstitutionally overbroad reading that would make every assault/battery case a deadly-weapon one. However, it specifically left open the question of whether a trained fighter’s hands and feet could be deemed weapons.

In any case, few (if any) people convicted of a deadly weapon assault with their hands are trained fighters.

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