Commonwealth v. Zortman, No. 11 WAP 2010 (Pa. July 19, 2011)
Zortman pleaded guilty to several drug charges including possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. These charges resulted from a search in which a handgun was found in close proximity to the drugs. The Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas applied the mandatory minimum sentence in accordance with Section 9712.1 (“Sentences for certain drug offenses committed with firearms”) and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment and three years’ probation.
After Zortman argued in her post-sentence motion that the mandatory minimum sentence should not apply because the handgun was inoperable without its firing pin, the court re-sentenced her to just nine months’ imprisonment and nine years’ probation.
The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court which reversed the trial court. Zortman then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Because statutory interpretation is a question of law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court exercised a de novo standard of review.
Section 9712.1 expressly adopts the definition of “firearm” that is in Section 9712 (e):
“Any weapon, including a starter gun, which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or the expansion of gas therein.”
The Court reasoned that “firing a bullet is the only true ‘designed’ function — in fact, the essence — of a handgun or ‘firearm,’” and the absence of part of a handgun does not make it lose its designed function. Therefore, in affirming the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Court concluded that even though the loaded handgun’s missing firing pin caused it to be inoperable, it was still a weapon that was designed to fire a bullet, and thus a “firearm” under the statute.