United States v. Robert Triggs (7th Cir. July 2020)

The Federal Docket

July 15, 2020

Firearm Offense/922(g) – When a defendant is charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), the government must show that the defendant knew he was in one of the categories barred from possessing a firearm.

Robert Triggs was charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) based on having a conviction for a “misdemeanor crime of violence.” He had been convicted of battery stemming from a domestic matter 10 years before. Triggs moved to dismiss the indictment based on an alleged Second Amendment violent given the age of the predicate battery conviction, which was denied. Triggs then entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, Triggs raised the Second Amendment issue and error under the Supreme Court’s intervening Rehaif case. He argued that Rehaif, which was decided after his plea and clarified the elements of a § 922(g) violation, “announced a new understanding of the elements of the crime of unlawful firearm possession” and that the government was now required to prove that he knew he was prohibited from possessing a firearm.

The Court agreed, first noting that Rehaif holds that “§ 922(g) requires the government to prove that the defendant knew he had the relevant status.” The parties agreed it was plain error to not advise Triggs of the elements, but the Government disputed whether the error prejudiced Triggs. The Court held that a charge under § 922(g) based on a defendant’s prior “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is complex enough to give Triggs “at least a plausible argument that he was unaware” that he qualified based upon his prior battery conviction. The Court held that, although Triggs might be unlikely to succeed at trial, “he has a plausible defense.” Therefore, the Court held that Triggs had shown a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty had he known what the government needed to prove.

The Court also held that the proceedings of his prior battery conviction increased the viability of his defense. The Court noted that Triggs did not have a lawyer and, despite his waiver of counsel, he did not have an opportunity for “legal counsel to explain the elements of the offense or the implications of his no-contest plea.” The Court further held that Triggs’s signed plea questionnaire did not list the crime to which Triggs pleaded and did not indicate what elements were made aware to him. The Court held that the record of Triggs’s plea hearing showed that the judge neither advised Triggs of the elements of the offenses nor mention a firearm prohibition.

Appeal from the Western District of Wisconsin

Opinion by Sykes, joined by Wood and Hamilton

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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