The justices reached down and ruled in the case without hearing argument. Tuesday's majority opinion was unsigned but three justices issued a signed dissent.
Clyde Timothy Bunkley burglarized a closed, unoccupied Western Sizzlin' Restaurant in Sarasota Couty, Fla, in April 1986. Police arrested Bunkley after he left the restaurant, and found a pocketknife, with a blade of 2 1/2 inches to 3 inches in length folded in his pocket.
There was no evidence the knife had been used in the burglary nor had Bunkley threatened anyone with it, according to court records.
Nevertheless, he was charged with burglary in the first degree because he was armed with a "dangerous weapon."
Burglary in the first degree in Florida is punishable by up to life in prison. If the pocketknife had not been included in his case, Bunkley would have been charged with third-degree burglary, punishable by not more than 5 years in prison.
The law defines a weapon as "any dirk, metallic knuckles, slungshot (sic), billie, tear gas gun, chemical weapon or device, or other deadly weapon except a firearm or a common pocketknife."
Burglaries with firearms are punished under a separate statute. But the "pocketknife" exception has been a part of Florida law since 1901. In 1997, the Florida Supreme Court defined the meaning of a "common pocketknife" for the first time -- one with a blade of 3 3/4 inches or less.
After that ruling, Bunkley's court-appointed lawyer filed a motion asking that the pocketknife in his client's case not be considered a weapon. Eventually the Florida Supreme Court rejected the claim, holding that the 1997 ruling did not apply retroactively because it was an "evolutionary refinement" of the law.
Bunkley then filed a pauper's petition to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Tuesday, the high court majority threw out the Florida Supreme Court ruling.
"If Bunkley's pocketknife fit within the 'common pocketknife' exception to (state law) in 1989," the unsigned opinion said, "then Buckley was convicted of a crime for which he cannot be guilty -- first degree burglary."
The majority sent the case back down to the Florida Supreme Court and told it to consider whether Bunkley's blade of 2 1/2 to 3 inches fit into the "common pocketknife" exception.
"The (Supreme) Court here makes new law," Rehnquist said, "and does so without argument or briefing."
The Supreme Court has never before decided whether the Constitution "requires a state court to apply a judicially announced change in state criminal law retroactively."
Moreover, Florida has a two-year limit on filing for post-conviction relief, he said.
(No. 02-8636, Bunkley vs. Florida.)