Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Supreme Court case watch - U.S. v. Hayes

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of U.S. v. Hayes, a case dealing with whether 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(9), which prohibits gun ownership or possession by anyone convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence", requires that the predicate crime have as an element a domestic relationship between the offender and victim.

From SCOTUSwiki:
In 2005, respondent Randy Edward Hayes was indicted on three counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). A superseding indictment alleged that Hayes was convicted in 1994 in West Virginia of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (“MCDV”), which – as relevant here – 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A) defines as a crime that is a misdemeanor under state law and “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed by a current … spouse.” Although Hayes was, in fact, convicted in 1994 of battering his then-wife, he moved to dismiss the superseding indictment on the ground that the 1994 conviction was not an MCDV. To qualify as an MCDV, Hayes argued, the predicate offense must have, as an element, a domestic relationship between the victim and the perpetrator – an element that was not present in the West Virginia simple battery statute under which he was convicted. Relying on the Fourth Circuit’s unpublished decision in United States v. Ball, in which the court held that Section 921(a)(33)(A) does not require a domestic relationship element, the district court denied Hayes’ motion, and Hayes entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of violating Section 922(g)(9).

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. The court recognized that it was taking the minority position by holding that Section 921(a)(33)(A) requires a domestic relationship element, as at least eight other circuits have ruled to the contrary. However, in the majority’s view, the plain and unambiguous language of Section 921(a)(33)(A) prevails over any legislative intent to be garnered from the “sparse” legislative history, which does not clarify whether a domestic relationship is a requisite element. Turning to rules of statutory construction, the majority relied on the rule of the last antecedent – which mandates reading a limiting phrase as modifying only the noun of the phrase immediately before it – to conclude that the requirement that an offense be “committed by” someone with a domestic relationship to the victim modifies the phrase beginning “has, as an element” rather than the noun “offense.” And although the court deemed Congress’s use of the singular “element” as insignificant, it relied on the semicolon at the end of Section 921(a)(33)(A)(i) and the absence of any semicolon before “committed by” in Section 921(a)(33)(A)(ii) as reflecting Congress’s intent to separate the clauses, and its simultaneous lack of intent to restrict “has, as an element” to the “use of force” phrase. Finally, even to the extent that any ambiguity remains in the statute, the majority concluded that the rule of lenity required it to rule in Hayes’s favor.

The Supreme Court's oral argument transcript is available here.

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