United States v. Oniel Russell (11th Cir. May 2020)

Firearm Offenses/922(g) – The defendant established that he was prejudiced under plain error review and Rehaif where the district court excluded the defendant’s immigration applications and evidence that he believed he was in the U.S. legally.

Oniel Russell appealed his conviction of possessing a firearm as an unlawful alien in violation of 18 U.S.C.§§ 922(g)(5)(A), 924(a)(2). While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rehaif, where the Court held that the government must prove that a defendant had knowledge concerning “his status as a person barred from possessing a firearm.” The parties submit supplemental briefing based on Rehaif.

Russell had tried to introduce evidence of Russell’s prior applications for immigration relief, but the evidence was excluded as irrelevant, since they did not establish that he was lawfully present in the U.S. and were thus irrelevant under the pre-Rehaif landscape.

Without deciding which standard to apply (abuse of discretion vs plain error), the Court concluded that Russell had shown plain error in arguing that the district court erred in excluding the evidence, even though the court’s decision was not contrary to law prior to the Supreme Court’s holding in Rehaif. The Court also held that Russell was prejudiced by this error, as he had consistently challenged the nature of his immigration status, and his knowledge thereof, throughout the pretrial proceedings and sentencing. It clearly would have been a key element of his defense at trial had he been allowed to discuss his reasonable belief and the immigration applications.

Perhaps most importantly, preventing Russell from raising his lack of knowledge, given Rehaif, was tantamount to preventing him from arguing the lack of a necessary element for a 922(g)(5) conviction–knowledge of one’s status.

Appeal from the Middle District of Florida

Opinion by Wilson, joined by Branch and Restani (by designation from the U.S. Court of International Trade)

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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