Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court, in the matter of Voisine et al v. United States held 6-2 that a person convicted under state law for a “reckless” domestic assault would fall under the blanket prohibition of persons permanently banned from possessing a firearm by 18 U.S.C. sec. 922(g)(9) for committing a “crime of domestic violence”.
The case appears to have centered on the mens rea of the crimes at issue. Petitioners Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong argued that they should not fall under the blanket ban under sec. 922(g)(9), because their convictions could have been based on reckless conduct, and not knowing or intentional conduct.
The mens rea of recklessness being, as Black’s Law Dictionary describes it, “Conduct whereby the actor does not desire harmful consequence but…foresees the possibility and consciously takes the risk,” or “a state of mind in which a person does not care about the consequences of his or her actions.” This is distinguished from “knowing” or “intentional” conduct where (obviously) the perpetrator knew full well what they were doing when committing the crime, and it was to promote an outcome that they desired.
Neither Voisine nor Armstrong sound like particularly appealing (ha ha! – little legal joke there) people. Voisine pled guilty in 2004 to assaulting his girlfriend, in violation of §207 of the Maine Criminal Code, “which makes it a misdemeanor to ‘intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause[ ] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.'” A few years late, when the Maine 5-0 nailed him again for killing a bald eagle in which case they “learned that Voisine owned a rifle.” He was then charged with violating 18 USC sec 922(g)(9).
For his part, Armstrong pled guilty in 2008 to assaulting his wife in violation of the same Maine law. When the PD paid a return visit some years later as part of a narcotics investigation, they found Armstrong in possession of “six guns, plus a large quantity of ammunition,” as the decision’s author, Justice Kagan, described it.
Both Armstrong and Voisine pled guilty to the violation of sec. 922(g)(9), on the condition that they could subsequently appeal the lower court’s holding that the Maine statute did not trigger the prohibition under federal law.
In rejecting the petitioner’s arguments, Justice Kagan, spent a bit of time with textual analysis over the meaning of the word “use”, and wrote for the majority:
Congress’s definition of a “misdemeanor crime of violence” contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior. A person who assaults another recklessly “use[s]” force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally. The relevant text thus supports prohibiting petitioners, and others with similar criminal records, from possessing firearms.
Justices Thomas and Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, arguing that the word “use” is, um, used repeatedly throughout other decisions and statutes to mean knowing, and intentional acts relating to firearms:
Maine’s assault statute likely does not qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” and thus does not trigger the prohibition on possessing firearms…. The Maine statute appears to lack, as a required element, the “use or attempted use of physical force.” Maine’s statute punishes at least some conduct that does not involve the “use of physical force.” Section 207 criminalizes “recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” By criminalizing all reckless conduct, the Maine statute captures conduct such as recklessly injuring a passenger by texting while driving resulting in a crash. Petitioners’ charging documents generically recited the statutory language; they did not charge intentional, knowing, and reckless harm as alternative counts. Accordingly, Maine’s statute appears to treat “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” causing bodily injury or an offensive touching as a single, indivisible offense that is satisfied by recklessness.
What does this mean for gun rights? Well, the Heller decision explicitly allowed the possibility of barring possession of firearms by “felons or the mentally ill.” Although the crime at issue was not a felony, it’s unlikely that the Court would overturn the law making people convicted of domestic violence simply because those crimes were technically misdemeanors; if Congress has the power to bar possession based on a felony, why not a misdemeanor, too?
My rather libertarian views on the issue aside, this probably doesn’t move the needle much on the gun rights issue. The rights of ex-convicts to possess firearms just doesn’t get people fired up, and with an obliging Court, I expect there to be no progress on those issues…well, not in any timeframe that’s meaningful to me.
Where this does move the needle, however, is in the broad area of criminal law. Here, the Court was willing to allow an interpretation that made it easier to sustain a conviction against a petty criminal. On the other hand, the Court released another criminal law decision today involving the former Governor of Virginia which, as SCOTUSBlog reports, will make it “much harder for federal prosecutors to prove charges of public corruption against elected officials.”
I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, though.