A decade of silence is broken. After 10 years of silence while sitting on the bench, United States Supreme Court Justice Thomas ask a question during oral arguments. Justice Thomas, a vigorous defender of gun owner rights, questioned why a misdemeanor domestic assault violation should allow one’s guns rights to be taken away indefinitely in the complex case of Voisine v. United States, which involved domestic violence and gun ownership issues.
In Voisine v. United States, the Supreme Court examined whether a conviction of reckless domestic assault applied to 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(9) which prohibits firearm possession by individuals convicted of a felony. Voisine v. United States, 579 U.S. __ (2016).
Here, Stephen Voisine (”Voisine”) plead guilty to assaulting his girlfriend under the Maine Criminal Code, which was a misdemeanor charge. According to the § 207 of the Maine Criminal Code, it is a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily injury” to another. Several years later, Voisine found himself under a criminal investigation for alleging killing a bald eagle.
During said investigation, law enforcement learned that Voisine owned a rifle. After running a background check and discovering Voisine prior misdemeanor assault conviction, the government charged Voisine for violating 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(9) which is a federal law that prohibits, convicted felons from possessing firearms.
Voisine argues that he is not subject to 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9) prohibition of firearms because his prior conviction could have been based on reckless assault; therefore, the charge did not amount to “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” However, the Supreme Court did not agree with Voisine argument.
The Supreme Court began by accessing precedent. In United States v. Castleman, congress extended 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9) to apply to any person convicted of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” United States v. Castleman, 572 U.S. ___(2014). However, the Supreme Court in Castleman only held that knowing or intentional assault qualifies as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” Id. The Supreme Court failed to rule if a true reckless assault qualified as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
The Supreme Court held that reckless domestic assault qualifies as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9). Specifically, the Supreme Court noted that nothing in the text or comments of the statute indicated a contrast between domestic assault committed knowingly and domestic assault committed recklessly. One of the Supreme Courts main concerns was the petitioner’s narrow view of 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9). If the petitioner succeeded in his claim, 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9) would be inoperative in 35 jurisdictions with assault laws extending to recklessness.
The petitioner view advances that one must have knowing mens rea to be subject to 18 U.S.C §922(g)(9) and that a conviction of assault under a law that embodies recklessness would not qualify as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” However, the Supreme Court stated that reckless conduct, a conscious disregard of a known risk, is not an accident and is a deliberate decision. The Supreme Court referenced the congressional intent in regards to the statute. Notably, the Supreme Court points to the fact that Congress wanted to bar those convicted of domestic abuse misdemeanors from owning guns, regardless if it on the basis of reckless assault or battery.
Being convicted under the federal statute 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(9) requires the convicted individual to forfeit his or her firearm indefinitely which some see as encroaching on an individual’s 2nd amendment right. However, the Supreme Court only agreed to accept this case on the basis of statutory interpretation and not the evaluation of the 2nd amendment. Whether you see this as a remarkable victory or as another law that advocates for over criminalization, this case will forever be notable as break of Justice Thomas’ silence on the bench.
If you are facing a federal gun charge or a domestic violence charge, contact federal criminal attorney Joseph A. Ingram at (205) 335-2640.