Perception Is Reality: When Fake Weapons or Gestures Make a Robbery First Degree

 In the case of State v. Kelvin Williams, the defendant walked into a bank wearing baggie clothes and a hoodie and demanded money. He claimed that he had a bomb and the teller believed him because of his erratic behavior and loose clothing. The defendant demanded seven million dollars but was only given $552 from the teller drawer. He then fled and was quickly caught. The defendant was convicted of first degree robbery and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. The defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal to first-degree robbery because he claimed since he was not in reality armed with a weapon the State must show:

  1. a threat and demand for money and
  2. an accompanying gesture that gave a reasonable impression of a weapon

The defendant was convicted in trial court but on appeal because it was held that the teller’s belief that the defendant had a bomb was unreasonable in the totality of the circumstances. The N.J. Supreme Court granted certification and in turn found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. This is mainly because in the case of a bomb which is not a precision weapon but is known to create mass death in an indiscriminate manner, it is unlikely that a reasonable person would require more proof after someone claims to have one. So in this case the teller-victim possessed a reasonable and subjective belief that the device was capable of producing death or serious bodily injury. In the more common case of perceived guns that are not actually existent it would depend whether in a totality of the circumstances it was reasonable for the victim to believe their life was in danger to determine whether the crime meets the threshold of first degree robbery. It should be noted that there is a companion case for this opinion, State v. Dekowski with nearly identical circumstances, including a robbery with the threat of a nonexistent bomb in which the trial court found the defendant guilty of first degree robbery but on appeal this was reversed. The N.J. Supreme Court holding applies to both cases.

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