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Law School Case Brief

Rehaif v. United States - 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019)

Rule:

18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g) provides that it shall be unlawful for certain individuals to possess firearms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” A separate provision, 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(a)(2), adds that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. The word “knowingly” in 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(a)(2) applies both to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status. To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it. By specifying that a defendant may be convicted only if he “knowingly violates” 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g), Congress intended to require the Government to establish that the defendant knew he violated the material elements of § 922(g). Without knowledge of that status, the defendant may well lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. His behavior may instead be an innocent mistake to which criminal sanctions normally do not attach. 

Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. In determining Congress’ intent, the U.S. Supreme Court starts from a 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. When a statute prescribes the kind of culpability that is sufficient for the commission of an offense, without distinguishing among the material elements thereof, such provision shall apply to all the material elements of the offense, unless a contrary purpose plainly appears. 

Facts:

Petitioner Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot two firearms at a firing range. The Government prosecuted him under 18 U. S. C. §922(g), which makes it unlawful for certain persons, including aliens illegally in the country, to possess firearms, and §924(a)(2), which provides that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The jury at Rehaif’s trial was instructed that the Government was not required to prove that he knew that he was unlawfully in the country. The jury returned a guilty verdict, which the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Petitioner sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Does the criminal statute in this case require proof that the defendant acted knowingly?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court reversed the decision of the lower courts. In a prosecution under §922(g) and §924(a)(2), the Government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm.

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