Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two notable case notes in latest Harvard Law Review

The February 2011 issue of the Harvard Law Review includes brief notes on two significant federal circuit court rulings that have both gotten considerable attention on this blog:

Second Circuit Holds Within-Guidelines Child Pornography Sentence Procedurally and Substantively Unreasonable. — United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010)

En Banc Seventh Circuit Holds Prohibition on Firearm Possession by Domestic Violence Misdemeanants to Be Constitutional. — United States v. Skoien, 614 F.3d 638 (7th Cir. 2010) (en banc)

February 24, 2011 in Booker in the Circuits, Recommended reading, Second Amendment issues, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fourth Circuit orders Second Amendment hearing to assess constitutionality of § 922(g)(9)

The Fourth Circuit has added a final bit of Second Amendment fireworks to close out 2010 through a long decision today in US v. Chester, No. 09-4084 (4th Cir. Dec. 30, 2010) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion by Chief Judge Traxler starts and ends in Chester:

The sole issue presented in this appeal is whether William Samuel Chester’s conviction for illegal possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) abridges his right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment in light of District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008). We vacate the decision below and remand for further proceedings....

We cannot conclude on this record that the government has carried its burden of establishing a reasonable fit between the important object of reducing domestic gun violence and § 922(g)(9)’s permanent disarmament of all domestic violence misdemeanants.  The government has offered numerous plausible reasons why the disarmament of domestic violence misdemeanants is substantially related to an important government goal; however, it has not attempted to offer sufficient evidence to establish a substantial relationship between § 922(g)(9) and an important governmental goal.  Having established the appropriate standard of review, we think it best to remand this case to afford the government an opportunity to shoulder its burden and Chester an opportunity to respond.  Both sides should have an opportunity to present their evidence and their arguments to the district court in the first instance.

Here is how Judge Davis starts and ends a quite lengthy concurrence:

In light of the highly persuasive decision of the Seventh Circuit in United States v. Skoien, 614 F.3d 638 (7th Cir. 2010) (en banc), pet. for cert. pending, sustaining the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), the district court should have no difficulty in concluding that the application of § 922(g)(9) to offenders such as Chester passes Second Amendment scrutiny, exactly as district courts have already concluded. See United States v. Smith, 2010 WL 3743842 (S.D.W. Va. Sept. 20, 2010) (applying Skoien and sustaining statute); United States v. Staten, 2010 WL 3476110 (S.D.W. Va. Sept. 2, 2010) (same)....

I can foresee no difficulty for the district court in sustaining the constitutional validity of the application of § 922(g)(9) in this case.  Nevertheless, under the circumstances of the law’s understandably slow evolutionary course of development, I am content to give Appellant Chester a full opportunity to offer evidence and argument showing the district court how and why he escapes the law’s bite.

A few related Second Amendment posts:

UPDATE:  Eugene Volokh has this effective new post discussing the Chester opinion, which has prompted an interesting comment dialogue about whether and how often minor matters get turned into domestic violence misdemeanor.  And, like the thoughtful comments below, folks at Volokh are discussing whether William Samuel Chester’s makes an effective poster-child for Second Amendment rights.

December 30, 2010 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Notable Cato review of modern Bill of Rights on their day

Tim Lynch has a this notable post (with losts and lots of links) at the Cato@Liberty blog under the simple heading "Bill of Rights Day."  The whole post is worth checking out, and here are parts that highlight some criminal justice stories:

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.   Let’s consider each amendment in turn....

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms....

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Government officials, however, insist that they can treat airline travelers like prison inmates by conducting virtual strip searches and crotch inspections....

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial.  That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial....

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.  Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel....

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control.  The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

December 15, 2010 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another star going to NY prison for years for gun possession... and prompting more Second Amendment wondering

As detailed in this news report, "Ja Rule became the latest US rapper to face jail on a gun charge, after pleading guilty Monday in New York to attempted possession of a weapon, prosecutors said." Here are the basics:

Ja Rule, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, is expected to be sentenced to two years behind bars and 18 months of supervised release after pleading guilty to attempted criminal possession of a .40 caliber handgun.

Sentencing is on February 9, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's office said. A more severe punishment could have been expected had Ja Rule gone to trial and been convicted.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said that the city, which has some of the strongest anti-gun laws in the nation, is still working to stem gun violence. "Gun crimes are serious offenses and today's guilty plea should send a serious message to anyone thinking of illegally bringing a gun into New York City," he said.

The rapper was caught with the pistol in his sports car after a 2007 concert in Manhattan. He had been performing alongside rapper Lil Wayne who was also charged with gun possession in a separate arrest and spent much of 2010 in prison.

Though I do not know all the details surrounding Ja Rule's gun possession and the plea deal his attorney's worked out here, I do know that I continue to be disappointed and somewhat surprised that high-profile celebrity defendants facing serious prison time for mere gun possession are not trying to actively litigate a Second Amendment defense to their prosecution.  Assuming all that the Ja Rule did wrong was to possess a handgun and that he could reasonably claim that he possessed this handgun for personal self-defense, I do not fully understand why Ja Rule and his lawyers (and his agents) would not want to try to litigate a Second Amendment claim based on Heller and McDonald through the New York state courts.

For low-profile and not-wealthy defendants, I can understand how the notoriety and economic costs of a Second Amendment challenge may make such a defense to gun possession charges not worth pursuing.  But for a rapper like Ja Rule, the notoriety could be a benefit to his career and the economic costs should not be a show-stopper.  (Indeed, I suspect some public interest lawyers might even take on a high-profile constitutional case like this at a discount.)   Moreover, Ja Rule would likely be able to stay out on bail while this kind of claim was litigated, and the prospects for a good plea deal would not seem to get much worse from the decision to litigate a constitutional challenge to the very law with which the defendant is charged.

If Ja Rule has a long criminal history of other offenses or if there are other factors preventing him from being a sympathetic Second Amendment litigator, then I guess I understand why he might accept two-years in prison for simple gun possession.  But lots of defendants get much less prison time for crimes that seem much worse and do not have even the patina of the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right.  Thus, I never quite understand why defendants like Ja Rule and Plaxico Burress and Lil Wayne accept deals that mean long stretches in prison for doing something that a majority of the Supreme Court might well say is constitutionally protected to do. 

December 14, 2010 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Media reports on public support for Atkins, Graham, Heller and Roper

As detailed in this new press story, which is headlined "Public backs most high court rulings," a recent report suggests that the general public is generally supportive of the Supreme Court's recent pro-defendant Eighth Amendment rulings and pro-gun Second Amendment ruling.  Here are snippets from the press story:

The Supreme Court shifted to the right four years ago when conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. succeeded moderate Sandra Day O’Connor.  And if American public opinion is the measure, the Roberts court has made the right call in most of its major decisions since then, according to a recent study that asked respondents about cases.

A strong majority favored conservative rulings that prohibited “partial-birth” abortions, upheld a homeowner’s right to have a gun, and required voters to show photo identification.

The majority also supported liberal rulings that said environmental regulators could restrict the carbon pollution linked to global warming and that struck down state laws that put juvenile criminals in prison for life without hope for parole....

Columbia University law professor Nathaniel Persily said the court historically has been “to the left of the public” on issues that attract attention, such as crime, religion and affirmative action. Along with Harvard political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere, he set out to survey the public’s view of actual cases.  Their Constitutional Attitudes Survey asked more than 1,600 respondents in 2009 and 2010 about issues that were before the Supreme Court....

Overall, the court’s current and nuanced position on the death penalty and abortion is in line with public opinion, the survey found.

A majority supports the death penalty for murder, and the court has upheld capital punishment.  The public also agreed with the rulings that ended the death penalty for those who are mentally handicapped (in 2002) and for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes (in 2005).

On abortion, the public supports –- by a 61 percent to 38 percent majority –- the Roe v. Wade ruling that set forth the right to an abortion, but it also supports regulations and restrictions, including limits on late-term abortions.

At Nathaniel Persily's webpage, I found what appears to be the July 2010 report on the Constitutional Attitudes Survey upon which this press article is based.  This 113-page "Constitutional Attitudes Field Report" (which is available for download below) is a bit hard to sort through, and I was not able to find the results showing public agreement with the 2010 Graham LWOP decision.  Also, though not reported by the press, it appears that the survey also revealed strong disagreement with the Supreme Court's 2008 Kennedy decision prohibiting the death penalty for child rapists.

Download Constitutional Attitudes Field Report_Client-1

UPDATE:  Via a helpful e-mail, Professor Persily has clarified where the Graham results can be found and what they showed:

We asked the following question (page 99 of the codebook):

In general do you agree or disagree with the following statements: A state should be allowed to sentence for life in prison a person under 18 years of age for armed burglary.

Stongly agree 10.9%

Agree Somewhat 24.6%

Disagree Somewhat 38.0%

Strongly disagree 23.4%

Refused to answer 3.1%

October 17, 2010 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Kennedy child rape case, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Standardless Second Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this new Issue Brief authored by Tina Mehr and Adam Winkler coming from the American Constitution Society. At this link, here is how ACS describes the piece:

ACS is pleased to distribute “The Standardless Second Amendment,” by Tina Mehr, an Attorney Fellow at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, and Adam Winkler, a Professor of Law at the University of California Los Angeles.  In their issue brief, Ms. Mehr and Professor Winkler discuss the state of Second Amendment law following the Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago.  The authors observe that “[i]t is often said that there are 20,000 gun control laws in the United States,” and these two decisions, which “held that the Second Amendment guaranteed individuals a right to possess firearms for personal protection,” raise questions about the constitutionality of these laws.  Despite the Court’s two recent decisions, Ms. Mehr and Mr. Winkler argue that “Second Amendment doctrine is profoundly unsettled” and that “the Supreme Court failed to give [lower courts] adequate guidance on how to resolve gun control controversies.”  The authors discuss how courts have been resolving these disputes and the implications for future cases.  They conclude by contending that, “even in the absence of sufficient guidance about how to analyze Second Amendment controversies, the lower courts have consistently read Heller and McDonald to permit lawmakers wide latitude to protect public safety through gun laws.”

October 13, 2010 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Can dismissed domestic violence complaint justify revoking gun permit?

This local story from Massachusetts provides an interesting spin on both "sentencing" based on dismissed charges and the Second Amendment rights of those accused of violent behavior.  The piece is headlined "Man challenges state gun law: Constitutionality of 2005 permit revocation questioned," and here are the details:

Citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, a Shrewsbury man is challenging the constitutionality of a state law under which his license to carry a firearm was revoked five years ago by Police Chief Gary J. Gemme.  Lawyer Mel L. Greenberg, who represents Raymond J. Holden, filed an amended petition in Central District Court Sept. 10 appealing Chief Gemme’s 2005 revocation of Mr. Holden’s firearms license based on a determination that Mr. Holden was not a “suitable person” to carry a gun.

In a memorandum of law accompanying his amended petition, Mr. Greenberg said the term “suitable person,” as it appears in the law, is unconstitutionally vague given the Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling in the case of McDonald v. Chicago.  The nation’s highest court ruled in a 5-4 decision in that case that the Second Amendment grants citizens a fundamental right to bear arms that cannot be infringed upon by state and local governments.

Mr. Holden, who has a place of business in Worcester, had been granted a license to carry a firearm in 2001, but the license was suspended by Chief Gemme on Sept. 14, 2005, four days after Mr. Holden was arraigned in Westboro District Court for an alleged assault on his wife. The assault and battery complaint was dismissed Oct. 3, 2005, after Mr. Holden’s wife recanted a statement in a Shrewsbury Police Department incident report.

Judge Dennis J. Brennan, since retired, then ordered the reinstatement of Mr. Holden’s license in light of the dismissal of the assault charge. Chief Gemme followed the court’s order, but then revoked the license, saying he could consider underlying evidence that a crime had occurred even if a charge had been dismissed....

“The McDonald ruling adds the Second Amendment right to bear arms to the list of fundamental rights guaranteed to all citizens.  Consequently, any state statute or regulation which restricts or regulates such a right is subject to the strictest judicial scrutiny to insure that it reasonably regulates without infringement of that right and that its application does not result in a denial of due process rights,” Mr. Greenberg wrote.

Vague laws violate due process “because citizens do not receive fair notice of the conduct proscribed by the statute and because they do not limit the exercise of discretion by officials, creating the possibility of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” the lawyer said in his memorandum.

As regular readers know, the Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of enhancing an offender's criminal sentence based on acquitted and dismissed conduct.  But, of course, in those cases the offender has been duly found guilty of some other offense. 

Here, Mr. Holden has not been convicted of anything at all.  But, of course, he also is not being sentenced, just having his gun permit revoked.  And if Police Chief Gary Gemme has a sound basis for concluding that Mr. Holden did in fact beat his wife, his permit revocation decision would seem to accord with Congress's basic view (which finds expression in federal criminal law) that a person who commits even a minor form of domestic violence should never be allowed to possess a firearm under any circumstances.

September 18, 2010 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Eighth Circuit (gleefully?) rejects Second Amendment challenge to § 922(g)(3)

The Eighth Circuit today in US v. Seay, No. 09-2778 (8th Cir. Sept. 8, 2010) (available here), rejects yet again a federal defendant's effort extend the reach of the Supreme Court's Second Amendment work in Heller.  That fact alone is not especially notable, but I could not help but notice that the panel seems almost gleeful to reject a Second Amendment claim.  The Seay opinion works hard to dodge an appeal waiver in order to address the Second Amendment merits, and then it has this to say (with lots and lots of cites omitted):

Following Heller, many defendants have argued that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), or some subsection thereof, violates the Second Amendment. To date, none have succeeded.  For example, we have upheld the constitutionality of § 922(g)(1) (felon in possession).  Our sister circuits have upheld the constitutionality of § 922(g)(1), as well as § 922(g)(4) (persons committed to mental institutions or adjudicated as a mental defective) and § 922(g)(9) (persons convicted of a domestic-violence misdemeanor)....

Turning to the subsection at issue here, § 922(g)(3) makes it unlawful for anyone “who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” to possess a firearm....  Following Heller, one circuit and several district courts have upheld § 922(g)(3) against Second Amendment attack....

Nothing in Seay’s argument convinces us that we should depart company from every other court to examine § 922(g)(3) following Heller.  Further, § 922(g)(3) has the same historical pedigree as other portions of § 922(g) which are repeatedly upheld by numerous courts since Heller.  See Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub. L. No. 90-618, 82 Stat. 1213.  Moreover, in passing § 922(g)(3), Congress expressed its intention to “keep firearms out of the possession of drug abusers, a dangerous class of individuals.”  United States v. Cheeseman, 600 F.3d 270, 280 (3d Cir. 2010), pet. for cert. filed, 78 U.S.L.W. 3731 (U.S. June 1, 2010) (No. 09-1470).  As such, we find that § 922(g)(3) is the type of “longstanding prohibition[] on the possession of firearms” that Heller declared presumptively lawful.  See128 S. Ct. at 2816-17.  Accordingly, we reject Seay’s facial challenge to § 922(g)(1).

September 8, 2010 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Friday, September 03, 2010

Seventh Circuit rejects Second Amendment arguments against § 922(g)(3)

Today through its decision in US v. Yancey, No. 09-1138 (7th Cir. Sept. 3, 2010) (available here), a Seventh Circuit panel provides yet another example of the disinclination of lower courts to extend the reach or applicability of the Supreme Court's Second Amendment work in Heller. Here is the start and end of the per curiam Yancey opinion:

Matthew Yancey pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as an unlawful user of marijuana but reserved the right to argue on appeal that the offense of conviction, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), violates the Second Amendment as interpreted in District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008).  We conclude that the statute is constitutional and affirm Yancey’s conviction....

In sum, we find that Congress acted within constitutional bounds by prohibiting illegal drug users from firearm possession because it is substantially related to the important governmental interest in preventing violent crime.

September 3, 2010 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Another notable Second Amendment claim rebuffed by another federal judge

As detailed in this local report, which is headlined "Federal judge orders BB-gun toting woman to serve sentence," the now-familiar pattern of lower federal courts refusing to give broad application to the Supreme Court's recognizition of individual Second Amendment rights is continuing.  Here are the specifics this time around:

A federal judge Tuesday refused to delay a jail sentence any longer for a Santa Cruz Mountains woman who has been fighting to overturn her misdemeanor gun-brandishing conviction with an argument that her Second Amendment rights have been violated.

In a nine-page order, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton found that Stanford-educated medical doctor Barbara Saldinger is unlikely to prevail in her legal battle and that she should begin serving her 60-day jail sentence immediately....

A Santa Cruz jury convicted Saldinger more than four years ago of brandishing a weapon after she was arrested during a dispute with neighbors in which she displayed a BB gun as she chased them away from her horse farm.  Saldinger and her husband had been feuding with the neighbors for months over the location of the boundary between their two properties.

In appealing her case in the state and federal courts, Saldinger's lawyers maintain that her conviction should be overturned because her conduct is covered by a constitutional right to bear arms to protect property.  Among other things, Saldinger's appeal argues that recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings extending the Second Amendment to state and local regulations entitles her to a new trial.

Hamilton did not rule on Saldinger's federal claims, but did reject her bid to stay the sentence until her case is fully resolved.  The judge called her Second Amendment argument "misplaced," and indicated she does not believe, based on the facts of the case, that Saldinger's appeals will succeed.

Dennis Riordan, Saldinger's high-profile defense lawyer, said the appeal will continue.  Even if she serves her sentence, Saldinger has vowed to try to clear her name....

Deputy Attorney General Gregory Ott, who represented the state, said Hamilton's assessment of Saldinger's chance of prevailing is correct. "The Second Amendment was being thrown out there to make a merits claim," he said. "The Second Amendment doesn't have any application to brandishing."

August 25, 2010 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Seventh Circuit rejects as-applied Second Amendment challenge to § 922(g)(1), but suggests a non-violent felon might prevail

The Seventh Circuit handed down today another intriguing Second Amendment opinion in which it finds unavailing an as-applied challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), the federal felon-in-possession criminal prohibition.  There are lots of interesting aspects of the panel's ruling in US v. Williams, No. 09-3174 (7th Cir. Aug. 5, 2010) (available here) -- including the fact that retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was one of the members of the Seventh Circuit panel (though she was not the author of the unaninous panel opinion).

But Williams strikes me as especially notable because the panel's emphasizes on the fact that the defendant challenging § 922(g)(1) had previously been convicted of a violent felony. And then the panel opinion throws in this very noteworthy paragraph:

And although we recognize that § 922(g)(1) may be subject to an overbreadth challenge at some point because of its disqualification of all felons, including those who are non-violent, that is not the case for Williams.  Even if the government may face a difficult burden of proving § 922(g)(1)’s “strong showing” in future cases, it certainly satisfies its burden in this case, where Williams challenges § 922(g)(1) as it was applied to him.  See Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 610 (1973) (“[A] person to whom a statute may constitutionally be applied will not be heard to challenge that statute on the ground that it may conceivably be applied unconstitutionally to others, in other situations not before the Court.”).  Williams, as a violent felon, is not the ideal candidate to challenge the constitutionality of § 922(g)(1).

It seems that the panel here in Williams may be essentially urging that a better candidate in the form of a non-violent felon, take a Second Amendment run at § 922(g)(1).

A few related Second Amendment posts on related issues:

August 5, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Third Circuit rejects Second Amendment attack on federal crime of possessing gun with obliterated serial number

The Third Circuit has a very detailed and interesting discussion of Heller and the Second Amendment's impact on gun possession prohibitions and regulation today in US v. Marzzarella, No. 09-3185 (3d Cir. July 29, 2010) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started and ends:

This appeal presents a single issue, whether Defendant Michael Marzzarella’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(k) for possession of a handgun with an obliterated serial number violates his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  We hold it does not and accordingly will affirm the conviction....

Second Amendment doctrine remains in its nascency, and lower courts must proceed deliberately when addressing regulations unmentioned by Heller.  Accordingly, we hesitate to say Marzzarella’s possession of an unmarked firearm in his home is unprotected conduct. But because § 922(k) would pass muster under either intermediate scrutiny or strict scrutiny, Marzzarella’s conviction must stand.

For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s denial of Marzzarella’s motion to dismiss the indictment and affirm his judgment of conviction and sentence [which was 9 months imprisonment].

As the opinion's penultimate paragraph suggests, the Marzzarella opinion proceeds deliberately and in so doing cover more Second Amendment ground than any other opinion I can recall from the last two years.  (I am tempted here to make a bad pun on the defendant's name by saying that the Marzzarella opinion comes with extra Heller cheese and lots of dicta toppings.) 

In short, the Third Circuit's work in Marzzarella is a must-read for anyone following the development of Second Amendment jurisprudence.  It also provides another notable data point for those hoping (or fearing) that Heller would not seriously impact the vast majority of gun control laws.

UPDATE: The Legal Intelligencer now has this report on the Marzzarella decision, which is headlined "In Wake of 'Heller,' 3rd Circuit OKs Ban on Unnumbered Guns."

July 29, 2010 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tenth Circuit dodges Second Amendment issue in gun possession prosecution involving self-defense claim

The Tenth Circuit handed down a notable decision today in US v. Pope, No. 09-4150 (10th Cir. July 23, 2010) (available here), in which the panel dodges a potentially challenging Second Amendment issue on procedural grounds.  Here is how the opinion starts:

This case began when a grand jury indicted Mark Pope for violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). That statute makes it a federal felony for a person previously convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to possess a gun.  In response to the indictment, Mr. Pope filed a motion to dismiss.  While he admitted to being previously convicted of a domestic violence crime, and to possessing a gun, Mr. Pope pressed an affirmative defense that, he said, precluded his conviction.  Because he possessed the gun in question only on the property where he was living and only to protect himself, others, or his property, he argued that the application of § 922(g)(9) to him would violate the Second Amendment.  While the statute may be constitutional as applied to other situations, it is, he submitted, unconstitutional as applied to the facts of his case.

The district court denied Mr. Pope’s motion to dismiss and today we affirm that decision.  We do so without passing, one way or the other, on Mr. Pope’s Second Amendment defense because an antecedent procedural problem lurks here.  All the material facts on which Mr. Pope’s motion to dismiss relies are outside the indictment, hotly disputed by the government, and intimately bound up in the question of Mr. Pope’s guilt or innocence.  Under these circumstances, Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(2) and our precedent preclude the resolution of Mr. Pope’s asapplied constitutional challenge before trial.

Notably, as the Pope opinion explains, after the district court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss, "Mr. Pope opted to plead guilty and was sentenced. In agreeing to plead guilty, however, he reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his pre-plea motion to dismiss." In light of that plea decision, and now the Tenth Circuit's procedural ruling, it is unclear whether or how Pope's Second Amendment claim will ever be adjudicated on the merits.

A few related Second Amendment posts on related issues:

July 23, 2010 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, July 16, 2010

Brady Center VP already making much of Seventh Circuit's ruling in Skoein

In a week full of eventful circuit opinion, the Seventh Circuit significant Second Amendment ruling in Skoien from earlier this week (basics here, commentary here) still seems to me to be the most noteworthy.  Conforming my view is this new piece at The Huffington Post from Dennis A. Henigan, the Brady Center's Vice President, which is headlined, "New Court Ruling Throws Cold Water on 'Gun Rights' Celebration." Here is how the piece starts and ends:

For those in the extremist gun lobby and the libertarian right who view the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment rulings as assault weapons ready to blow holes in America's gun laws, the Seventh Circuit's ruling this week in U.S. v. Skoien must be a bitter pill.

Skoien is no doubt the most significant lower court ruling on the Second Amendment since the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller two years ago recognizing the right of individuals to have guns in the home for self-defense.  The Seventh Circuit heard the case en banc (i.e. with all eleven judges sitting) and, by a vote of 10-1, upheld the conviction of Steven Skoien for violating the federal law barring possession of guns by individuals with misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence.  Skoien, like many other convicted gun criminals, saw Heller as a way to avoid punishment by seeking to strike down as unconstitutional the law he had violated.

The Skoien ruling is a bucket of cold water thrown on the "gun rights" celebration following the Supreme Court's decision last month in McDonald v. City of Chicago striking down Chicago's handgun ban....

It is easy to understand why libertarian bloggers like Josh Blackman are upset about the Skoien ruling, which he cites as evidence of the "epic failure" of both Heller and McDonald to truly establish a constitutional basis for the gutting of America's gun laws.  Blackman frets that Judge Easterbrook's opinion in Skoien sets forth "a framework that will likely be relied upon by most courts."  If he's right, and I think he is, strong gun control laws have little to fear from the Second Amendment.

A few related Second Amendment posts on Skoien and related issues:

July 16, 2010 in Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 15, 2010

NBA's Delonte West sentenced (lightly? harshly?) for weapons offenses in Maryland

The fact that the Supeme Court has now made clear that the Second Amendment applies to the states apparently did not prompt NBA player Delonte West or his lawyer to think he ought to try to fight his prosecution for keeping and bearing arms on a Maryland highway last year.  As detailed in this Washington Post article, West today pleaded guilty and was sentenced for his arms possession:

NBA player Delonte West pleaded guilty Thursday to two weapons charges and was sentenced by a Prince George's County judge to eight months of home detention, two months of probation and 40 hours of community service.

West had been charged with six weapons offenses and two traffic violations. He pleaded guilty to carrying a dangerous weapon -- an eight-inch bowie knife -- and illegally transporting a handgun.

At a court hearing in Upper Marlboro, West's attorney, C. Todd M. Steuart, said his client was taking the weapons from his mother's home in Brandywine to his house in Fort Washington when he was stopped by a Prince George's police officer on the Capital Beltway in the Landover area, miles away from either home. West was carrying two handguns, a shotgun, the knife and more than 100 shotgun rounds.

West told Circuit County Judge Graydon S. McKee III that he felt remorse for the incident. "I want you to know how apologetic I am to you and all the other professionals in here who do the right thing," he said. West said he often speaks to Washington area youth who have been in trouble. "I'm able to share my experiences with them," he said. "I'm able to relate to them. If I never dribble a basketball again, I think I found my calling."

Following the hearing, State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the sentence will allow West to go to Cleveland for his job as a player with the Cleveland Cavaliers. West will be allowed to attend practices, home games and away games, Ivey said.

Prince George's prosecutors typically ask for a year in jail for defendants convicted of a weapons offense. Judges usually sentence defendants with no prior convictions -- like West -- to probation or home detention, Ivey said. The terms of West's plea bargain ensure he is being treated no differently than any other defendant in similar circumstances, Ivey said.

As the title to this post suggests, I am unsure whether it is fair to view West's sentence as light, harsh, or perhaps just right.  As I suggested in this post right after West's arrest, a person with a robust view of the Second Amendment might be greatly concerned that West is subject to a significant sanction for merely keeping and bearing arms.  And yet, in light of the significant prison sentences given to Plaxico Burress and Lil Wayne for gun possession in New York City, West likely should consider himself lucky to avoid any serious jail time.

July 15, 2010 in Celebrity sentencings, Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Notable press account of Skoein Second Amendment ruling with partisan perspectives

The AP has this notable new piece, headlined "Court's decision offers some clarity on gun laws," discussing the Seventh Circuit significant Second Amendment ruling in Skoien from earlier this week.  Here are some highlights:

A federal appeals court upheld a ban on gun possession for a domestic violence offender in a ruling that several anti-violence advocates applauded Wednesday for providing some clarity after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent landmark decision on gun restrictions....

"Even with the new definition of the Second Amendment, it (Tuesday's ruling) shows that you can still have reasonable gun restrictions," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said of the appellate ruling. "This case really reaffirms that you can have limits."

But Herbert Titus, an attorney for the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, which filed an amicus brief for the Wisconsin man called the decision outrageous. He said the Supreme Court's ruling put the Second Amendment on par with the First Amendment, which can't be taken from someone.

"No one has said you lose your First Amendment rights if you violate some law," he said. "Why should we assume just because you violated some law, the government can take away your Second Amendment rights?"

The Wisconsin case involved Steven Skoien who was convicted twice of misdemeanor domestic violence involving two different women. While on probation, the Janesville, Wis., man was arrested in 2007 for gun possession, pleaded guilty the following year and was sentenced to two years in prison....

Some experts said Tuesday's ruling at least provided some clarity for what gun restrictions might be acceptable -- if only for narrowly defined terms. "This decision clarifies for the moment that people who are situated in that same situation as the plaintiff don't have an immediate Second Amendment claim," said Nicholas Johnson, professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.

But the ruling left much in doubt, including whether a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence could earn back the right to carry guns. "There will be time to consider that subject when it arises," Easterbrook wrote in his opinion.

I am pleased to see that a gun-rights group like Gun Owners of America is not backing away from its forceful views on constitutional gun rights in a case like this.  I wonder if other like-minded groups, and especially the National Rifle Association, will express a similar view. 

Especially if Steven Skoien seek Supreme Court review of his loss in the Seventh Circuit, which I expect he will, the amicus support of groups like Gun Owners of America and the NRA could play a critical role in whether the Justices feel a need to take up this issue now or only after they have deal with other post-Heller issues.

A few related Second Amendment posts on Skoien and related issues:

July 15, 2010 in Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Skoien and the many challenges of Second Amendment jurisprudence

The Seventh Circuit's Skoien en banc ruling yesterday, which via this opinion by Chief Judge Easterbrook, rejects a Second Amendment challenge to the federal law criminalizing gun possession by anyone previously convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, reinforces my sense that Second Amendment jurisprudence is going to be very messy and very challenging in the months and years ahead.  Here are just some of the ways the Skoien majority opinion highlights these realities:

1.  Uncertainty about the standard of reviewThe Skoien opinion properly cites Heller to reject a "rational-basis test" for the Second Amendment, but then avoids giving any more content to the proper standard of review through this passage:

The United States concedes that some form of strong showing (“intermediate scrutiny,” many opinions say) is essential, and that § 922(g)(9) is valid only if substantially related to an important governmental objective.... The concession is prudent, and we need not get more deeply into the “levels of scrutiny” quagmire, for no one doubts that the goal of § 922(g)(9), preventing armed mayhem, is an important governmental objective.  Both logic and data establish a substantial relation between § 922(g)(9) and this objective.

Skoien foreshadows a "quagmire" if (and when?) Second Amendment jurisprudence has to start sorting through levels of scrutiny, and its seeks to avoid this quagmire by positing that (any and all?) gun regulations are substantially related to an important governmental objective.  But given that gun regulations are always aimed at improving public safety and that the creators of such regulations surely see their restrictions as substantially related to this goal, it is unclear how much more real bite is being given to a standard of review here in Skoien.

2.  Too ready justification for gun restrictionAs hinted above, the real problem with Skoien may not be how it avoid a clear legal test for the Second Amendment, but how readily it concludes that such a test is satisfied by the criminal law being challenged.  If preventing gun violence (i.e., "armed mayhem") is always going to qualify as an important governmental objective, and if "logic and data" of the sort set out in Skoien is adequate to justify a very broad criminal prohibition on gun possession by a large class of persons, it seem very unlikely that many (or really any) partial gun bans will be struck down.  Gun control advocates always can and often do seek to make logical and statistical arguments that a specific gun ban will reduce access to guns and thus reduce the potential for gun violence.

3.  Questionable analogies to the First Amendment and sex offender restrictions:  The majority opinion in Skoien justifies its ruling by developing or referencing analogies to First Amendment jurisprudence and sex offender restrictions, but the analogies are suspect in many respects.  As the dissent notes, there are no categories of persons who are subject to criminal prosecution just for seeking to exercise a freedom to speak.  (There are categories of speech not subject to constitutional protection, but this is analgouos to arms like bazookas and bombs that I assume are categorically excluded from coverage by the Second Amendment.)  Similarly questionable is the suggestion in Skoien that allowing registration and zoning rules for convicted sex offenders makes "generally proper" a categorical exclusion of certain misdemeanant from a fundamental right expressly protected by the Bill of Rights.

As my comments above suggest, I am unimpressed by the constitutional method in Skoien.  For this reason (and others), I also find the ultimate ruling not so convincing.  But the point of this post is not merely to dicker with the outcome; rather, I principally wanted to highlight how hard it is going to be for courts to sort through all the challenging constitutional issues implicated by modern gun restrictions and the new constitutional gun rights set out in Heller and McDonald.

A few related Second Amendment posts on Skoien and related issues:

July 14, 2010 in Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Split en banc Seventh Circuit in Skoien upholds categorical exclusion of DV misdemeanant from Second Amendment

Regular readers and Second Amendment junkies may recall the Skoien case in which a Seventh Circuit panel suggested that the Second Amendment may not permit the federal categorical prohibition on the possession of guns by persons previously convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.  The full Seventh Circuit took the case up en banc, and today it reverses course via this opinion by Chief Judge Easterbrook.

Both Chief Judge Easterbrook's majority opinion and Judge Sykes' lengthy dissent have lots and lots of very interesting and important passages concerning the natures, scope and future of Second Amendment jurisprudence.  Also, both opinions include lots and lots of cites to leading post-Heller scholarship.  In short, this is a must-read and a case that is definitely worth continuing to watch not only if/when the defendant seeks SCOTUS cert review, but also to see if the usual gun right groups will express concerns with some of the pro-gun-restriction language that Chief Judge Easterbrook's opinion now makes the law of the Seventh Circuit. 

Indeed, given the on-going debate over the state and fate of Chicago's new gun regulations after McDonald, I think Skoien (the opinion, not the defendant) is now going to be Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's best friend.

A few related Second Amendment posts on Skoien and Chicago gun laws:

July 13, 2010 in Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Beyond Guns: N.R.A. Expands Agenda"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting article in today's New York Times concerning how the National Rifle Association is planning to continue pushing for broader gun rights in the wake of the Second Amendment rulings in Heller and McDonald.  Here are snippets:

Fresh off a string of victories in the courts and Congress, the National Rifle Association is flexing political muscle outside its normal domain, with both Democrats and Republicans courting its favor and avoiding its wrath on issues that sometimes seem to have little to do with guns....

The N.R.A.’s expanding portfolio is an outgrowth of its success in the courts, Congressional officials and political analysts said. With the Supreme Court ruling last month for the second time since 2008 that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to have a gun, the N.R.A. now finds that its defining battle is a matter of settled law, and it has the resources to expand into other areas.

When the N.R.A. had a narrower range of targets, it relied on a core group of political figures and met with stiffer resistance from vocal gun control advocates in Congress and outside groups. It now has freer rein to leave its mark politically on issues that once seemed out of its reach....

N.R.A. officials say they are determined to protect gun rights even if it means using the group’s $307 million budget and membership of more than four million gun owners to influence ancillary issues. “What you’re seeing is a recognition that support for the Second Amendment is not only a very powerful voting bloc, but a very powerful political force.” Chris W. Cox, the N.R.A.’s chief lobbyist, said in an interview last week at the group’s Washington office, a few blocks from the Capitol....

But the group’s muscle has generated tensions with some gun owners themselves, who do not like the idea of the N.R.A. straying into areas outside its core base and aligning itself with Democrats as it broadens its agenda.

The headline on a recent blog post from a rival faction, the Gun Owners of America, singling out the N.R.A.’s exemption from the campaign finance bill, captured the sentiment: “The N.R.A. Sells out Freedom to the Democrats.”

A point of contention on both the left and the right is the N.R.A.’s close working relationship with Mr. Reid, the Senate leader who helped get a number of pro-gun rights measures included in broader bills.

That relationship has led some gun rights supporters to lobby against the idea that the N.R.A. might endorse Mr. Reid in his tough re-election campaign this November in Nevada. The N.R.A. is not tamping down speculation. While Mr. Cox said the group had not decided on any endorsements, he pointed to what he considered an unattractive alternative if Mr. Reid loses and the Democrats hold power. “I’ll give you four words: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,” he said.

July 13, 2010 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Second Amendment lawsuit already filed against new Chicago gun regulations

As detailed in this brief report, a lawsuit has already been brought challenging the new gun regulations that were adopted in Chicago last week. Here are the basics:

As trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who owns a farm is among a handful of people suing the city of Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley, claiming the new gun control ordinance infringes on their constitutional rights.

Chicago aldermen passed the ordinance last week, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago's longtime handgun ban on June 28.  The suit, filed Tuesday, asks the U.S. District Court to declare the ordinance "null and void" and prohibit the city from enforcing it.

The ordinance requires anyone who wants to keep a handgun at home to obtain a Chicago firearm permit, take firearms training and have no convictions for a violent crime, unlawful use of a firearm or two or more charges of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Each weapon must be registered, and owners can only register one weapon each month, according to the ordinance.

The National Rifle Association immediately threw its support behind the lawsuit.  And the Illinois Association of Firearms Retailers is among those named as a plaintiff in the suit.

Thanks to David Kopel via The Volokh Conspiracy, I see that the complaint in this suit is available at this link.

Some old and new related posts on state litigation and McDonald

July 7, 2010 in Second Amendment issues, Weblogs, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack