Most people understand "operating a motor vehicle" as driving, until they are arrested for DUI while sleeping off in their turned off car.

Most people understand "loaded weapon" as a gun with bullets in it, until they are charged in NYC with possession of a loaded firearm despite having the gun and the bullets in separate locked containers.

How far can such redefinitions of common words divert from the common usage?

  • 1
    Do you have a citation for anyone prosecuted in your second scenario? I've heard of the first happening (although I'd probably wager the law you're cited with breaking doesn't limit itself strictly for "operating" in the common sense and is most likely shorted by the cop who takes you in), but I would be very surprised if "possession" in the statute it applies to actually allows for this. Even if it did, I'd be very surprised if any judge would determine that's an acceptable interpretation unless it was obvious you intended to use it unlawfully.
    – PC Luddite
    Mar 26, 2021 at 4:54
  • 3
    @RobbieGoodwin, it's not my interpretation; NYC actually prosecutes people for possession of loaded firearms despite the guns being locked and unloaded. My question was triggered by this report.
    – Michael
    Mar 26, 2021 at 15:17
  • @PCLuddite, here is the report that caused me to ask this question.
    – Michael
    Mar 26, 2021 at 15:21
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – feetwet
    Apr 2, 2021 at 0:43

2 Answers 2


As much as they like

Most pieces of legislation have a “dictionary” detailing, for the purposes of that legislation (or generally) what specific words and phrases mean. This can broaden (or narrow) the definition compared to how they are used in normal English.

The purpose of this is not to set a trap for the unwary, although this may happen, but to introduce precision and to allow a short defined term to be used in the drafting rather than having to explain what is meant verbosely every time it’s used.

Of course, they can’t redefine terms so that they give themselves jurisdiction when they otherwise wouldn’t have it. For example, in , the Constitution gives the Federal Parliament the power to make laws about, among other things, “external affairs”. A law that tried to define “external affairs” more broadly than the Constitution does (which it doesn’t, so we fall back on what it means in English) would be invalid.

  • 6
    I concur with this answer. AFAK, in US law, there's nothing that stops a legislature from defining "apple," in a statute, to mean "an elongated yellow fruit."
    – user36183
    Mar 24, 2021 at 22:15
  • 7
    "compared to how they are used in normal English": also compared to how they are used in some other law. @ColinLosey US campaign finance law defines "foreign national" to exclude one class of "aliens" as defined in the immigration and nationality act (namely those aliens who are lawful permanent residents).
    – phoog
    Mar 25, 2021 at 1:15

The effective limit is whatever the courts will put up with. Legislatures can pass laws that will be overturned by the courts, so the real question is whether a redefinition will be upheld by the courts. It can be difficult to calculate whether a given law will be upheld, or how it will be reinterpreted if challenged in court. Given the current Supreme Court, the words of a statute will be given higher priority compared to various other canons of interpretation, and in general SCOTUS takes seriously any coherent, explicit redefinitions of words as reflecting the will of the legislature. Since "loaded" is explicitly redefined in the New York statute, there is little room to argue. In some other situation, a redefinition might be incoherent in which case the courts would have to decide how the word is to be interpreted (the courts will not reach an absurd conclusion just because the legislature enacted a certain bit of wording).

  • 8
    The definition: "15. "Loaded firearm" means any firearm loaded with ammunition or any firearm which is possessed by one who, at the same time, possesses a quantity of ammunition which may be used to discharge such firearm." is actually insanely broad. If I own both a firearm and the corresponding ammo, and keep the firearm in a locked safe in the garage and the ammo in another locked safe which is in my boat in a marina 50 miles away, am I still in possession of a loaded firearm? After all, I simultaneously "possess" both.
    – Michael
    Mar 24, 2021 at 23:51
  • 3
    Given the statutory definition, you would think so, but that would be an absurd result. As I said. I don't know if this definition has been tested in court.
    – user6726
    Mar 25, 2021 at 0:01
  • 7
    @Matt: "Possess" is a term of art in common law. You are correct to assert that it is more specific than "own." It refers to physical dominion and control, not ownership. You can legally "possess" a car that you have rented, for example. So if you borrow your friend's gun, then you are "possessing" that gun for the purposes of the statute.
    – Kevin
    Mar 25, 2021 at 17:16
  • 3
    @Matt, The way possession is defined in the 1st sentence here seem to imply that ownership implies possession, even though not vice versa. It's ownership OR control OR occupancy, not ownership AND control. Therefore if I own a gun located in Brooklyn and a box of ammo in the Bronx I am in possession of a loaded firearm, according to NYC legislature.
    – Michael
    Mar 25, 2021 at 23:01
  • 2
    I believe that one can be imprisoned for owning drugs not within immediate reach. Since the intent was to absolutely prohibit having drugs, it's not absurd to ban ownership of drugs. It is constitutionally absurd to ban simultaneous ownership of a firearm and ammo in the US, therefore "possess" cannot be assigned the broader meaning.
    – user6726
    Mar 26, 2021 at 0:01

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .