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June 21, 2019

SCOTUS finds mens rea of "knowing" distributes in gun statute in Rehaif

The Supreme Court ruled for a federal criminal defendant today in classic criminal law mens rea case in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court, which starts this way:

A federal statute, 18 U. S. C. §922(g), provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful” for certain individuals to possess firearms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” Ibid.  A separate provision, §924(a)(2), adds that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

The question here concerns the scope of the word “knowingly.”  Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)?  We hold that the word “knowingly” applies both to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status.  To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.

Justice Alito penned a lengthy dissent, which was joined by Justice Thomas and starts this way:

The Court casually overturns the long-established interpretation of an important criminal statute, 18 U. S. C. §922(g), an interpretation that has been adopted by every single Court of Appeals to address the question.  That interpretation has been used in thousands of cases for more than 30 years.  According to the majority, every one of those cases was flawed. So today’s decision is no minor matter.  And §922(g) is no minor provision. It probably does more to combat gun violence than any other federal law.  It prohibits the possession of firearms by, among others, convicted felons, mentally ill persons found by a court to present a danger to the community, stalkers, harassers, perpetrators of domestic violence, and illegal aliens.

Today’s decision will make it significantly harder to convict persons falling into some of these categories, and the decision will create a mountain of problems with respect to the thousands of prisoners currently serving terms for §922(g) convictions.  Applications for relief by federal prisoners sentenced under §922(g) will swamp the lower courts.  A great many convictions will be subject to challenge, threatening the release or retrial of dangerous individuals whose cases fall outside the bounds of harmless-error review.

June 21, 2019 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

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