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January 15, 2014

SCOTUS again struggling with state-federal crime intersection in Castleman

The Supreme Court today had oral argument in a challenging federal criminal case today, and SCOTUSblog has lots of great coverage of the issues and today's argument in US v. Castleman thanks to two post today by Amy Howe. Here and links to both SCOTUSblog posts, along with the start of the two lengthy entries:

Argument preview: Court once again considers when prior state convictions result in federal penalties

Some federal laws impose or enhance penalties based on the defendant’s prior criminal convictions. For example, the Armed Career Criminal Act requires a longer sentence for a defendant who has been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and has three prior convictions for “violent felonies.” Even though Congress generally defines terms like “violent felonies,” those definitions may not always match up with the elements of a crime under state or tribal law, requiring the courts to determine whether a particular state offense is a qualifying prior conviction for purposes of federal law.

That is the question before the Court this morning in the case of James Castleman, in United States v. Castleman. The federal government charged Castleman with a violation of a federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), which prohibits someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. The statute defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law (1) by someone who (as relevant here) has a child with the victim, which (2) “has as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”

Argument report: Balancing over- and under-inclusiveness

After first tackling the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that imposes a thirty-five-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in that state, this morning the Justices then turned to interpreting the U.S. Code – specifically, a provision that prohibits someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. At the end of the oral arguments in United States v. Castleman, there seemed to be dissatisfaction with the interpretations advanced by both sides, possibly leaving room for a compromise suggested by Justice Elena Kagan.

January 15, 2014 at 04:41 PM | Permalink


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I think all sides make good arguments. I think there's a good argument that offensive touching (and certainly just causing pain) isn't enough, but it doesn't have to be a serious bodily injury. In other words, the defendant gets 90% of his argument, but might fall short personally from winning. The ACCA language means that the Court can't just assume this case is about this small issue.

All that aside, Justice Alito's real world concern is not a small one. Congress, the states, and the Court don't all seem to be on the same page. States aren't going to bend over backwards to change their laws just so there could be federal consequences at some point. The Court isn't likely to abandon the categorical and modified categorical approaches (and there are good reasons, some arguably constitutional not to). Congress, it seems, doesn't give enough thought to this issue at all and just hopes everyone else sorts it out. But I do think including any Offensive Touching does violence to the meaning of the word "violent," so I think it's an inevitability that some misdemeanor assaults, even when factually serious, won't be included.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 15, 2014 7:37:24 PM

I wonder how this relates to SORNA. It can since states have different laws regarding crimes. We can avoid these laws by getting the feds out of the crime business that are more local matters. States of course can be free to enhance penalties based on previous crimes such as this (2nd amendment arguments and fairness aside whether an old conviction should preclude you 20 years late from having a gun, whether a pistol or shotgun ).

Posted by: Kris | Jan 17, 2014 7:05:05 AM

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