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A reckless domestic assault qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g)(9). Congress defined that phrase to include crimes that necessarily involve the use of physical force. 18 U.S.C.S. § 921(a)(33)(A). Reckless assaults, no less than the knowing or intentional ones satisfy that definition. Further, Congress enacted § 922(g)(9) in order to prohibit domestic abusers convicted under run-of-the-mill misdemeanor assault and battery laws from possessing guns. Because fully two-thirds of such state laws extend to recklessness, construing § 922(g)(9) to exclude crimes committed with that state of mind would substantially undermine the provision’s design.
Petitioner Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend in violation of §207 of the Maine Criminal Code, which made it a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury” to another. When law enforcement officials later investigated petitioner for killing a bald eagle, they learned that he owned a rifle. After a background check turned up petitioner’s prior conviction under §207, the Government charged him with violating §922(g)(9). In another case, 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 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, 572 U. S., at 170-171, 134 S. Ct. 1405, 188 L. Ed. 2d 426, 439. The First Circuit again upheld the convictions on the same ground.
Did a reckless domestic assault qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under §922(g)(9)?
The court held that a reckless domestic assault qualified as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under §922(g)(9). Under a natural reading of the plain language of the statute, it encompassed acts of force undertaken recklessly, that is, with conscious disregard of a substantial risk of harm. The history of § 922(g)(9), which was enacted to bar domestic abusers convicted of garden-variety assault or battery misdemeanors from owning guns, supported this interpretation. A contrary interpretation risked engendering § 922(g)(9) inoperative in many jurisdictions.