Rehaif v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2019)
Firearm Offenses/18 U.S.C. § 922 – To convict a defendant for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon or other prohibited status, the Government must prove that the defendant had knowledge that the gun was in his possession and that he was legally prohibited from possessing it.
The Court held that, in prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant knew he possessed a firearm and knew he belonged to a category of persons prohibited from possessing firearms. Petitioner Rehaif was convicted of possession of a firearm by an alien unlawfully in the U.S. after his student visa was revoked without his awareness.
In holding that a scienter requirement applied to the element of the defendant’s unlawful status, the Court credited the statutory text of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) that makes it a crime to “knowingly” violate § 922(g), which specifies certain groups of people who are prohibited from owning guns. The Court held that the word “knowingly” is best understood as applying to all of the elements of § 922(g), thus imposing a “knowledge requirement” on both the possession and status elements of § 922(g). The Court emphasized that scienter requirements are often necessary to distinguish innocent conduct from illegal conduct and that it is the defendant’s status, not his possession of a firearm, that drives the criminality of the conduct envisioned under § 922(g).
The Court also declined to apply the maxim that “ignorance of the law” is no excuse, as the maxim “does not normally apply where a defendant’s mistaken impression about a collateral legal question causes him to misunderstand his conduct’s significance, thereby negating an element of the offense.”
Justice Alito dissented, criticizing the majority for “casually” overturning “the long-established interpretation of an important criminal statute” and making it “harder to convict persons falling into the prohibited classes.” The dissent argued that the most natural reading of the language limited the word “knowingly” to whether the defendant knows he is an alien, regardless of the legality of his status. Justice Alito warned that the majority’s reasoning might also apply to laws penalizing gun dealers from knowingly selling guns to people in prohibited classes.
On certiorari to the Eleventh Circuit
Opinion by Breyer, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh
Dissenting Opinion by Alito, joined by Thomas