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Monday, June 27, 2016

Domestic Violence and the Right to Bear Arms

Today, the last day of the term, the SCOTUS announced its 6-2 decision in Voisine v United States which expanded a federal firearm prohibition to include crimes of domestic violence. The consolidated cases, from Maine in the 1st Circuit, tested the scope of the longstanding "felon in possession" laws that disqualify convicted felons from possessing firearms.

Domestic violence is a misdemeanor in Maine as it is here in Michigan and in the majority of states. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion, focusing on the definition of mens rea and the "use of force". The Court expressly adopted the Model Penal Code definitions of the criminal mental state, expanding that definition to include reckless conduct.

This case once again pits the ever-roving intersection between federal and state laws. Mr. Voisine's state law conviction of domestic violence was the predicate to the federal firearm charge; a charge based on a 1996 extension of the federal firearm prohibition.

In Voisine's case, while on probation for a domestic assault, the state learned he possessed a rifle. His ineligibility to do so led to federal charges. In a very well-written opinion, Justice Kagan illustrates examples of a reckless mens rea in the domestic relations context.

When a spouse throws a plate against a wall in anger near the other spouse, for example, the mens rea is reckless. And this is enough to render someone convicted of such a misdemeanor ineligible to possess a firearm.

An interesting dimension to the case is Justice Clarence Thomas' dissent raising a Second Amendment constitutional issue that was not briefed in the case. [Note: this was the case where Justice Thomas asked questions during oral argument for the first time in over a decade.] Justice Thomas asserted that the Second Amendment is treated "cavalierly" when this right -the right to bear arms- can be lost for a lifetime due to a "reckless misdemeanor conviction".

Post #546

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