Review of California Penal Code 12556 PC
In the state of California, not only are there strict gun laws regarding when and how one possesses a firearm, but Penal Code 12556 PC also makes it illegal to display an imitation firearm in public, i.e., an object that resembles a real firearm.
While these offenses are considered minor infractions, subsequent violations could result in misdemeanor charges. Most cases are considered an infraction. An “imitation firearm” can include a firearm replica, a toy gun, a BB gun, and a pellet gun.
You could face criminal charges if you display an imitation firearm while in public in California. Public places are areas where the public can move about freely. Numerous locations are considered public places, such as streets, sidewalks, parking lots, automobiles, public buildings, libraries, and shopping malls.
Penal Code 12556(a) states that “nobody can openly display or expose any imitation firearm, defined under Section 12550, in public. Violations of this section are infractions punishable by a fine of $100 for the first offense and $300 for a second offense. A third or subsequent violation of this section is punishable as a misdemeanor crime.”
In this article by our California criminal defense lawyers, we will examine this law in more detail below.
Imitation Firearms Law Explained
According to Penal Code 12556 PC, it is against the law in California to "openly display or expose any imitation firearm...in a public place." The operative words here are "imitation firearm," "display," and "public place."
- Examples of imitation firearms may include toy guns, BB guns, firearm replicas, or any other object designed in color or appearance, so a reasonable person would assume it's a real firearm.
- To display could include hanging the imitation firearm on a wall unenclosed, leaving it on the seat of a car, or brandishing it (e.g., waving or pointing it at someone).
- Examples of public places may include a car (in public), parks, stores, schools, sidewalks, front yards, etc.
Note that it is not illegal in California to own an imitation firearm, just as it is legal to own a registered firearm lawfully. It is only unlawful to display it in public—particularly in such a way that it could alarm a person who reasonably believes the gun could be real.
There are instances in which California permits the public display of an imitation firearm, making these instances exempt from penalties. These include:
- Marching with an imitation firearm in a parade,
- Displaying the object mounted on a wall or in a display case,
- Use imitation firearms in a movie, TV show, or theatrical production.
What Are the Penalties for Displaying an Imitation Firearm?
Generally speaking, displaying an illegal firearm in public is an infraction in California, meaning you could receive a small fine but no jail time or probation. However, repeat offenses could upgrade the charge to a misdemeanor. The typical penalties are as follows:
- First offense—fine up to $100,
- Second offense—fine up to $300,
- Third or subsequent offenses—misdemeanor charges with maximum penalties of $1000 in fines and six months in county jail.
What Are the Related Offenses?
Other crimes related to displaying an illegal firearm may include:
Possession of a switchblade – Penal Code 17235 PC and 21510: It's a crime in California to possess in public, carry, sell, or give away a switchblade, i.e., a pocketknife with a blade longer than 2 inches which can be concealed and released by a mechanism or movement. Possession of a switchblade is a misdemeanor.
Possession of a belt buckle knife – Penal Code 20410 PC: it is against the law to make, possess, transport, or distribute these knives. If you're charged with violating California's belt buckle knife law, you could face up to 3 years in prison.
Brandishing a Weapon – Penal Code 417 PC: It's a crime in California to brandish a firearm or deadly weapon, i.e., to draw or exhibit it in a threatening manner, except in self-defense cases. Brandishing a weapon is a "wobbler" charged as either a misdemeanor or felony.
Possessing or Distributing a Cane Gun – Penal Code 24410 PC: All "cane guns" are illegal in California. A "cane gun" is a firearm enclosed in or disguised as a walking cane that can be discharged within the cane. Making, possessing, transporting, selling, or giving away one of these objects is a "wobbler" offense.
Carrying a Weapon into a Public Building or Gathering – Penal Code 171b: It's a crime to enter certain public places while carrying a firearm or other weapon, including government buildings and courthouses.
Weapons at an Airport – Penal Code 171.5 PC: It's a misdemeanor in California to carry a weapon or ammunition past the security checkpoint of any airport.
Criminal Threats – Penal Code 422 PC: It's a crime to threaten bodily harm or death to another person in a credible manner. This crime is often charged in tandem with other gun crimes if a gun is used as part of the threat. Criminal threats are "wobbler" offenses.
Other crimes include Penal Code 21810 PC possession of brass knuckles, Penal Code 22010 PC possession of nunchucks, Penal Code 16470 PC carrying a dirk or dagger, Penal Code 626.10 PC Weapons on School Grounds, and Penal Code 22610 PC Stun Guns and Tasers Law.
What Are the Common Defenses for Penal Code 12556 PC?
If you are charged with the public display of an imitation firearm, there are several defenses an experienced criminal defense attorney can raise on your behalf. The following are some of the most common:
- It was not an imitation firearm. Someone may have believed you were displaying a firearm, but the object itself doesn't meet the criteria for an imitation firearm. For example, if you shouldered a baseball bat as a rifle.
- No public display or intent to display publicly. The location was arguably not a public place (e.g., your home, a private room in a club), or you had a reasonable expectation of privacy and didn't realize you were in public view.
- You qualify for an exemption. You can legally claim immunity as a defense if you were on a movie set, in a parade, or in some other situation where you were allowed to display the imitation firearm.
Further, we might be able to argue you were searched and arrested without probable cause.Law enforcement must have probable cause to detain, search, and arrest someone. If they did not, it could have violated your constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment, and the charges might be dropped.
Also, depending on the details of your case, we might be able to negotiate with the prosecuting agency for lesser charges or even get the case dismissed outright.
Through early prefiling negotiations with law enforcement and the Deputy City Attorney who files the cases, we might be able to persuade them not to file formal charges in the first place.
However, this legal process is not always an option. If your guilt is not in doubt, then we might be able to arrange a favorable plea bargain to avoid a conviction.
The top-ranked criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP are located in Los Angeles County, and we serve people across the state of California. You can contact us for an initial case review at (310) 328-3776 or through the contact form.