Reckless Assault Means No Guns, High Court Holds

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court took a stand on gun control and women’s safety Monday in upholding a firearms ban for convicted domestic abusers.
     Felons have long been barred from possessing guns, but many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors. Studies show, however, that the crimes of misdemeanant domestic abusers often escalate in severity over time, and that the presence of a firearm increases the chances of a homicide.
     Congress sought to close this loophole in gun-control laws with Section 922(g)(9) of Title 18 – forbidding the ownership of firearm making it a crime for anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
     While the 2014 decision U.S. v. Castleman affirmed application of the ban for intentional assault misdemeanor convictions, the case decided today asked whether reckless assault should count as well.
     The court agreed 6-2 this morning that it should.
     “A person who assaults another recklessly ‘uses’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. “The relevant text thus supports prohibiting petitioners, and others with similar criminal records, from possessing firearms.”
     William Armstrong and Stephen Voisine, the petitioners behind today’s case, each faced federal charges of being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, in violation of Section 911(g)(9), after they were convicted under Maine law of abusing women with reckless intent.
     Armstrong was found with six firearms in 2010, just two years after his second conviction for assaulting his wife.
     Police found Voisine’s rifle after he was arrested in 2009 on a federal charge of killing a bald eagle. Voisine had two convictions for assaulting a domestic partner, as well.
     After a federal judge refused to dismiss the firearms charges against them, they conditionally pleaded guilty and were sentenced.
     The First Circuit affirmed in January, sending the men to the Supreme Court with the question of whether “a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness” qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
     Kagan said their convictions were properly affirmed.
     “The federal ban on firearms possession applies to any person with a prior misdemeanor conviction for the ‘use … of physical force’ against a domestic relation,” the 12-page opinion states. “That language, naturally read, encompasses acts of force undertaken recklessly — i.e., with conscious disregard of a substantial risk of harm. And the state-law backdrop to that provision, which included misdemeanor assault statutes covering reckless conduct in a significant majority of jurisdictions, indicates that Congress meant just what it said. Each petitioner’s possession of a gun, following a conviction under Maine law for abusing a domestic partner, therefore violates §922(g)(9). We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.”
     In an unlikely pairing, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Clarence Thomas in dissenting.
     “By criminalizing all reckless conduct, the Maine statute captures conduct such as recklessly injuring a passenger by texting while driving resulting in a crash,” Thomas wrote. “Petitioners’ charging documents generically recited the statutory language; they did not charge intentional, knowing, and reckless harm as alternative counts. Accordingly, Maine’s statute appears to treat ‘intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly’ causing bodily injury or an offensive touching as a single, indivisible offense that is satisfied by recklessness. So petitioners’ prior assault convictions do not necessarily have as an element the use of physical force against a family member. These prior convictions, therefore, do not qualify as a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence under federal law, and petitioners’ convictions accordingly should be reversed. At the very least, to the extent there remains uncertainty over whether Maine’s assault statute is divisible, the court should vacate and remand for the First Circuit to determine that statutory interpretation question in the first instance.”
     Whether accidentally hitting someone with a careless swung bat, or crashing because of a reckless driving, Thomas said there are different mental states at play.
     “Suppose a person strikes his friend for the purpose of demonstrating a karate move,” the 19-page dissent states. “The person has no desire to injure his friend, but he knows that the move is so dangerous that he is practically certain his friend will be injured. Under the common law, the person intended to injure his friend, even though he acted only with knowledge that his friend would be injured rather than the desire to harm him. Thus, even when a person acts knowingly rather than purposefully, this type of conduct is still a ‘use of physical force.'”
     The majority opinion had given examples of thrown plates and slammed doors.
     “If a person with soapy hands loses his grip on a plate, which then shatters and cuts his wife, the person has not ‘used’ physical force in common parlance,” Kagan said. “But now suppose a person throws a plate in anger against the wall near where his wife is standing. That hurl counts as a ‘use’ of force even if the husband did not know for certain (or have as an object), but only recognized a substantial risk, that a shard from the plate would ricochet and injure his wife.”
     The door example had been tread at oral argument.
     Kagan said a person who lets slip a door that he is trying to hold open for his girlfriend “has not actively employed (‘used’) force even though the result is to hurt her.”
     “But if he slams the door shut with his girlfriend following close behind, then he has done so — regardless of whether he thinks it absolutely sure or only quite likely that he will catch her fingers in the jamb,” the ruling continues. “Once again, the word ‘use’ does not exclude from §922(g)(9)’s compass an act of force carried out in conscious disregard of its substantial risk of causing harm
     For Thomas, however, there is a keen difference.
     “The Angry Plate Thrower and the Door Slammer both intentionally unleashed physical force, but they did not intend to direct that force at those whom they harmed,” he wrote. “Thus, they intentionally employed force, but recklessly caused physical injury with that force.”
     Thomas added that these “examples are only those in which a person has intentionally used force, meaning that the person acts with purpose or knowledge that force is involved.”
     “As a result, the majority overlooks the critical distinction between conduct that is intended to cause harm and conduct that is not intended to cause harm,” the dissent continues. “Violently throwing a plate against a wall is a use of force. Speeding on a roadway is not. That reflects the fundamental difference between intentional and reckless wrongdoing.”
     The justice called it more problematic, where “a person could recklessly unleash force that recklessly causes injury.”
     “The majority blurs the distinction between recklessness and intentional wrongdoing by overlooking the difference between the mens rea for force and the mens rea for causing harm with that force,” Thomas wrote.
     Thomas balked that, “under the majority’s approach, a parent who has a car accident because he sent a text message while driving can lose his right to bear arms forever if his wife or child suffers the slightest injury from the crash.”
     “This is obviously not the correct reading of §922(g)(9),” he added. “The ‘use of physical force’ does not include crimes involving purely reckless conduct. Because Maine’s statute punishes such conduct, it sweeps more broadly than the ‘use of physical force.’ I respectfully dissent.”

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