Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Supreme Court rules in gun possession case

Today, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in U.S. v. Hayes, holding in a 7-2 decision that a "domestic relationship, although it must be established beyond a reasonable doubt in a §922(g)(9) firearms possession prosecution, need not be a defining element of the predicate offense." In other words, the underlying state domestic violence (misdemeanor) statute need not have "domestic relationship" as a element of the crime. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Two justices, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, dissented.

Notably, the decision turned exclusively on the issue of statutory construction, and the opinion did not mention the Second Amendment or the Court's Heller decision from last term.

From the majority's opinion:
Section 922(g)(9) makes it “unlawful for any person . . . who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence . . . [to] possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition.” Section 921(a)(33)(A) defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as follows:
“[T]he term ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence’ means an offense that—
“(i) is a misdemeanor under Federal, State, or Tribal law; and
“(ii) has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed by a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian, or by a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim” (footnotes omitted).

This definition, all agree, imposes two requirements: First, a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” must have, “as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.” Second, it must be “committed by” a person who has a specified domestic relationship with the victim. The question here is whether the language of §921(a)(33)(A) calls for a further limitation: Must the statute describing the predicate offense include, as a discrete element, the existence of a domestic relationship between offender and victim? In line with the large majority of the Courts of Appeals, we conclude that §921(a)(33)(A) does not require a predicate offense statute of that specificity. Instead, in a §922(g)(9)prosecution, it suffices for the Government to charge and prove a prior conviction that was, in fact, for “an offense . . . committed by” the defendant against a spouse or other domestic victim.

The Court's opinion is available here.

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