The Criminal Defense Blog


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In Rehaif v. United States, the Supreme Court held 6-2 that in order to convict a defendant under 922(g), the government must prove beyond a reasonabnle doubt that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had belonged to a certian class of prohibited persons when he possessed it.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) makes it a federal offense for certian individuals to ship, transport, possess or receive any firearm or ammunition with the required interstate commerce nexus. Those prohibited classes of persons are: convicted felons (§ 922(g)(1)); fugitives from justice (§ 922(g)(2)); unlawful users or addicts of controlled substances (§ 922(g)(3)); mental defectives (§ 922(g)(4)); illegal aliens (§  922(g)(5)); dishonorably discharged servicemen (§ 922(g)(6)); and persons who have renounced their U.S. citizenship (§ 922(g)(7)). The penalty provision for a violation of § 922(g) appears at 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), which provides that a person who "knowingly" violates § 922(g) "shall be fined as provided in this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both."

Although 922(g) itself is silent as to the “knowingly” element, it is addresssed in §  924(a)(2), which provides: “Whoever knowingly violates subsection (a)(6), (d), (g), (h), (i), (j), or (o) of section 922 shall be fined as provided in this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”The term “knowingly” in 924(a)(2) modifies the verb “violates” and its direct object, here, 922(g).  The non-jurisdictional elements of 922(g) are status, possession, and firearm or ammunition, and knowingly applies to each one.

The Court stressed that in felon-in-possession cases, Congress could not have intended to impose criminal liability on “a person who was convicted of a prior crime but sentenced only to probation, who does not know that the crime is ‘punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” The Rehaif case involved 922(g)(5)(A), where the status is being an “alien” who is “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.”  The Court rejected the government’s argument that this is a question of law, not fact, and ignorance of the law is no excuse, because that maxim applies when the defendant claims to be unaware of a statute proscribing his conduct, not when a defendant has a mistaken impression concerning the legal effect of some collateral matter that results in his musunderstanding the significance of his conduct.  "The defendant’s status as an alien 'illegally or unlawfully in the United States' refers to a legal matter, but this legal matter is what the commenta­tors refer to as a 'collateral' question of law. A defendant who does not know that he is an alien 'illegally or unlaw­fully in the United States' does not have the guilty state of mind that the statute’s language and purposes require."

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