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United States v. Bass - 404 U.S. 336, 92 S. Ct. 515 (1971)


Ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity. When choice has to be made between two readings of what conduct Congress has made a crime, it is appropriate, before selection of the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite. This principle is founded on two policies that have long been part of our tradition. First, a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear. Second, because of the seriousness of criminal penalties, and because criminal punishment usually represents the moral condemnation of the community, legislatures and not courts should define criminal activity. This policy embodies the instinctive distaste against men languishing in prison unless the lawmaker has clearly said they should. Thus, where there is ambiguity in a criminal statute, doubts are resolved in favor of the defendant.


Respondent was convicted of possessing firearms in violation of § 1202 (a)(1) of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which provided that a person convicted of a felony "who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm . . ." shall be punished as prescribed therein. The indictment did not allege and no attempt was made to show that the firearms involved had been possessed "in commerce or affecting commerce," the Government contending that the statute did not require proof of a connection with interstate commerce in individual cases involving possession or receipt. Doubting its constitutionality if the statute were thus construed, the Court of Appeals reversed.


Can the respondent be convicted of violation of § 1202 (a)(1) of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, even without a showing that the firearms had been possessed “in commerce of affecting commerce”?




The Supreme Court of the United States adopted a narrow reading of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1202(a), and held that the phrase "in commerce or affecting commerce" was part of all three offenses, that is "receives, possesses, or transports" a firearm. The Court held that it was necessary to set aside the conviction because the Government failed to show the requisite nexus with interstate commerce. According to the Court, Congress had not plainly and unmistakably, made it a federal crime for a convicted felon simply to possess a gun absent some demonstrated nexus with interstate commerce.

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