SCOTUS Finds that Domestic Violence Conviction is a Misdemeanor Crime for Purposes of Limiting Acces
VOISINE ET AL. v. UNITED STATES CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT No. 14–10154.
Argued February 29, 2016—Decided June 27, 2016
In an effort to “close [a] dangerous loophole” in the gun control laws, United States v. Castleman, 572 U. S. ___, ___, Congress extended the federal prohibition on firearms possession by convicted felons to persons convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9). Section 921(a)(33)(A) defines that phrase to include a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law, committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the “use . . . of physical force.” In Castleman, this Court held that a knowing or intentional assault qualifies as such a crime, but left open whether the same was true of a reckless assault. Petitioner Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend in violation of §207 of the Maine Criminal Code, which makes it a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause[ ] bodily injury” to another. When law enforcement officials later investigated Voisine for killing a bald eagle, they learned that he owned a rifle. After a background check turned up Voisine’s prior conviction under §207, the Government charged him with violating §922(g)(9). Petitioner William Armstrong pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife in violation of a Maine domestic violence law making it a misdemeanor to commit an assault prohibited by §207 against a family or household member. While searching Armstrong’s home as part of a narcotics investigation a few years later, law enforcement officers discovered six guns and a large quantity of ammunition. Armstrong was also charged under §922(g)(9). Both men argued that they were not subject to §922(g)(9)’s prohibition because their prior convictions could have been based on reckless, rather than knowing or intentional, conduct and thus did not quality as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence. The District Court rejected those claims, and each 2 VOISINE v. UNITED STATES Syllabus petitioner pleaded guilty. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that “an offense with a mens rea of recklessness may qualify as a ‘misdemeanor crime of violence’ under §922(g)(9).” Voisine and Armstrong filed a joint petition for certiorari, and their case was remanded for further consideration in light of Castleman. The First Circuit again upheld the convictions on the same ground. Held: A reckless domestic assault qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under §922(g)(9). Pp. 4–12. (a) That conclusion follows from the statutory text. Nothing in the phrase “use. . . of physical force” indicates that §922(g)(9) distinguishes between domestic assaults committed knowingly or intentionally and those committed recklessly. Dictionaries consistently define the word “use” to mean the “act of employing” something. Accordingly, the force involved in a qualifying assault must be volitional; an involuntary motion, even a powerful one, is not naturally described as an active employment of force. See Castleman, 572 U. S., at ___. But nothing about the definition of “use” demands that the person applying force have the purpose or practical certainty that it will cause harm, as compared with the understanding that it is substantially likely to do so. Nor does Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U. S. 1, which held that the “use” of force excludes accidents. Reckless conduct, which requires the conscious disregard of a known risk, is not an accident: It involves a deliberate decision to endanger another.
The relevant text thus supports prohibiting petitioners, and others with similar criminal records, from possessing firearms. Pp. 5–8. (b) So too does the relevant history. Congress enacted §922(g)(9) in 1996 to bar those domestic abusers convicted of garden-variety assault or battery misdemeanors—just like those convicted of felonies— from owning guns. Then, as now, a significant majority of jurisdictions—34 States plus the District of Columbia—defined such misdemeanor offenses to include the reckless infliction of bodily harm. In targeting those laws, Congress thus must have known it was sweeping in some persons who had engaged in reckless conduct. See, e.g., United States v. Bailey, 9 Pet. 238, 256. Indeed, that was part of the point: to apply the federal firearms restriction to those abusers, along with all others, covered by the States’ ordinary misdemeanor assault laws. Petitioners’ reading risks rendering §922(g)(9) broadly inoperative in the 35 jurisdictions with assault laws extending to recklessness. Consider Maine’s law, which criminalizes “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” injuring another. Assuming that statute defines a single crime, petitioners’ view that §921(a)(33)(A) requires at least a knowing mens rea would mean that no conviction obtained under that law could qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” Cite as: 579 U. S. ____ (2016) 3 Syllabus Descamps v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___.
In Castleman, the Court declined to construe §921(a)(33)(A) so as to render §922(g)(9) ineffective in 10 States. All the more so here, where petitioners’ view would jeopardize §922(g)(9)’s force in several times that many. Pp. 8–11. 778 F. 3d 176, affirmed. KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joined as to Parts I and II.