May-June 2013

A crime against fashion (and the Penal Code)

Mark Spinn

Assistant District ­Attorney in El Paso County

Adam Loving

Assistant District ­Attorney in El Paso County

Ownership of knuckles is clearly a crime, but this was the first time El Paso prosecutors had seen a set on a designer handbag.

Although attorneys can (and do) argue over just about anything, we never imagined that our jobs as prosecutors would require wrangling over the legality of a purse handle.
    Ladies, be aware that sometimes, there is a price to looking good. Sometimes, in fact, looking good can be downright criminal. Let us introduce you to our encounter with one of fashion’s newest trends: the “knuckle clutch.”
    The Penal Code states, “A person commits an offense if the person intentionally or knowingly possesses … knuckles.”1 Knuckles are a prohibited weapon and are defined as “any instrument that consists of finger rings or guards made of a hard substance and that is designed, made, or adapted for the purpose of inflicting serious bodily injury or death by striking a person with a fist enclosed in the knuckles.”2 You will notice that a “fashion” exception is conspicuously absent from this definition.
    In the case that we prosecuted, the defendant did not simply possess knuckles. Rather, she was found in possession of metal knuckles attached to a small purse as its handle. Given this rather novel set of facts, we first had to determine if this was a case that merited prosecution. We did some research on the Internet and determined that these “knuckle clutches” are fairly common and readily available on eBay and Amazon. In fact, some are produced by very famous fashion houses and cost thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, the decision to prosecute was both simple and clear: We both believed that the purse handle fit the legal definition of “knuckles.” That is, if the purse handle were used in a fight, it was capable of causing serious bodily injury because of its unique design.
    During voir dire, our foremost concern was whether we could convey to the venire the rationale for the law recognizing “knuckles” as a “prohibited weapon.” The next step was making the venire aware of the various ways that a person could “possess” a prohibited weapon. The last area of discussion was determining why a person merely possessing a prohibited weapon—and in a rather odd way at that—deserved to be prosecuted. After all, it is not like our defendant was manufacturing these purses or had just threatened someone with her purse handle. Fortunately, one of the venire members was a police officer who explained why knuckles are a prohibited weapon and how they were capable of being used.
    At trial, we made a brief opening statement conceding that the defendant had not committed a heinous crime but nonetheless had clearly violated the law. Our only witnesses were two police officers, both testifying for the first time. The direct examination of the officers was fairly uneventful. They explained that they were called out to a fight in progress and that the defendant had been a passenger in a car owned by one of the people involved in the fight. The car’s driver had been arrested so the officers were going to impound the car. The defendant asked the officers if they could first remove her purse from the car. The officers testified that they immediately recognized the purse’s handle as knuckles. The defendant readily acknowledged ownership of the purse and stated that she had purchased it in Las Vegas. She was far more concerned with preventing her purse from being towed away with the car than acknowledging that her purse’s handle was a set of knuckles.
    Cross-examination, not surprisingly, was filled with far more drama. The defense attorney attempted to make the officers concede that a person could not use the purse’s knuckles as a weapon without that person injuring herself. The defense attorney asked one officer to use the purse’s knuckles as a weapon and punch the attorney’s code book. The officer gladly obliged and placed his hand in the knuckles. His punch proceeded to rip through the back cover and several pages of the book, while the officer’s hand remained unharmed. At this point, we asked the judge if we could publish the mangled book to the jury.
    During closing arguments, we kept the first portion of our closing statement short and simply reviewed the elements of the offense and explained how the evidence had proven those elements. During the second half of our closing statement, we explained that an object can be both a purse and brass knuckles: Just because an item is a purse does not prevent it from also being a prohibited weapon.
    The jury deliberated very briefly and returned a verdict of guilty. The defendant had also elected to go to the jury for punishment, but its deliberation took much longer in this phase. Ultimately, the jury levied a $250 fine. In light of her losing her purse, as well, this seemed like a just punishment.
    Our research showed that this same “knuckle” design can be found on many different types of items, including cell phone covers, key chains, and belt buckles. In addition, celebrities such as Emma Stone and Kim Kardashian are frequently seen at fashion shows and movie premieres clutching their purses by their “knuckle” handles. Be on the lookout for these new fashion accessories as they begin to make appearances in courtrooms near you. With similar prosecutions, people will begin to realize that these items are more than fashion “statements,” they are weapons. In fact, in Texas, they are “prohibited” weapons.


1 Tex. Penal Code §46.05(a)(6).
2 Tex. Penal Code §46.01(8).