Conviction of an alien unlawfully present in the United States for unlawful firearms possession
In case of Rehaif who entered the United States on a student visa and later lost his immigration status, the Supreme Court held that the Government therefore must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm, and reversed Rehaif’s conviction
What was the charge against Mr. Rehaif?
Rehaif entered the United States on a student visa. When the university to which he was admitted dismissed him for poor performance, it advised him that he would lose his immigration status unless he enrolled elsewhere, which he did not do. He went to a shooting range where he purchased ammunition and practiced using the ranges firearms. The ammunition he bought came from out-of-state and the firearms he used were from Austria.
What law says?
Federal law declares it unlawful for an individual, unlawfully present in the United States, to possess a firearm or ammunition that has been transported or shipped in interstate or foreign commerce. A second statute makes it a federal crime to knowingly engage in such unlawful possession.
District court held him guilty without proving his unlawful present in the United States
At his trial, the U.S. district court advised the jury that the government did not have to prove that Rehaif knew that he was in the U.S. unlawfully. The jury convicted Rehaif, and the court sentenced him to prison for 18 months.
The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed Rehaif’s conviction
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Eleventh Circuit) affirmed Rehaif’s conviction on several grounds. The Eleventh Circuit noted that conviction requires proof of three elements:
- The defendant falls within one of the categories [of disqualified possessors] (the status element);
- The defendant possessed a firearm or ammunition (the possession element); and
- The possession was in or affecting [interstate or foreign] commerce [(the jurisdictional element)]. With regard to the status element, binding Eleventh Circuit case law dispensed with a mens rea requirement (sometimes referred to as scienter, state of mind, or knowledge requirement).
The Supreme Court reversed Rehaif’s conviction
The Supreme Court held that the Government therefore must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm, and reversed Rehaif’s conviction. Speaking for a majority of the Court, Justice Breyer pointed out that mens rea questions are first and foremost a matter of congressional intent. He noted that the longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law, that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct. Nevertheless, he explained that the presumption does not necessarily apply to all of a crime elements.
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