United States v. James Innocent & Elijah Jones (11th Cir. October 2020)

The Federal Docket

Firearm Offenses/Rehaif – A defendant cannot show meet his burden in showing that a plain error under Rehaif  affected his substantial rights where he simply shows that he has a low IQ and he had never served more than a year in jail or prison.

Elijah Jones and James Innocent were convicted of possessing firearms as felons prior to the Supreme Court’s holding in Rehaif v. United States. Both appealed, arguing that the indictments were defective for failing to allege knowledge of their felon-status, as required by Rehaif. Under plain error review, the Court held that both defendants could prove that plain error occurred, but that neither could prove the error affected their substantial rights or a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different.

The Court noted that Innocent had been convicted of four felonies on three occasions and that “most people convicted of a felony know that they are felons.” (Which strikes us as a reckless statement that almost raises a presumption against innocence). Innocent, for his part, indicated that he would have shown his low IQ prevented him from understanding his status. However, the Court noted he completed high school on time with average grades and doubted he did not understand he was a felon. Innocent also pointed out that he had never served more than a year in prison, which is circumstantial evidence that someone knows they have been convicted of a felony, but the Court held that was not determinative.

As for Jones, the Court held there was “abundant evidence” that he knew he was convicted of a felony because he told an officer he was a felon. He had also been previously convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and had previously served many years in prison. He had also tried to ditch his gun before, evidence that he knew he wasn’t allowed to possess it.

The Court compared the cases to those where the defendants raised a Rehaif error and showed their substantial rights had been affected– such as where the defendant actively litigated his prohibited status and maintains that they are allowed to possess a firearm.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida

Opinion by W. Pryor, joined by Tjoflat and Hull

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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