WASHINGTON (CN) – Undocumented immigrants are barred from possessing guns, but how about an immigrant who doesn’t appreciate that flunking out of school on a student visa made his status illegal?
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Friday that federal law requires prosecutors to prove that the immigrant knew both his conduct and his status in the United States were unlawful.
“We normally presume that Congress did not intend to impose criminal liability on persons who, due to lack of knowledge, did not have a wrongful mental state,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “And we doubt that the obligation to prove a defendant’s knowledge of his status will be as burdensome as the government suggests.”
Concerned more about another fallout, meanwhile, Justice Samuel Alito warned that today’s ruling “opens the gates to a flood of litigation that is sure to burden the lower courts with claims for relief in a host of cases where there is no basis for doubting the defendant’s knowledge.”
Joined in the dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, Alito accused the majority of obscuring the facts of the case to maximize sympathy for individuals affected by the statute.
“The majority wants readers to have in mind an entirely imaginary case, a heartless prosecution of ‘an alien who was brought into the United States unlawfully as a small child and was therefore unaware of his unlawful status,’” Alito wrote. “Such a defendant would indeed warrant sympathy, but that is not petitioner, and no one has called to our attention any real case like the one the majority conjures up.”
Reciting a less glamorous account of Hamid Mohamed Ahmed Ali Rehaif’s predicament, Alito noted that the Emirati man entered the United States on a student visa that required him to remain enrolled as a student full-time.
The Florida Institute of Technology kicked Rehaif out twice for flunking, however, and even sent emails that warned he would have to find admittance elsewhere to prevent the termination of his status as a lawful alien.
Rehaif’s “response was to move to a hotel and frequent a firing range,” the dissent emphasizes.
“Each evening he checked into the hotel and always demanded a room on the eighth floor facing the airport,” Alito wrote. “Each morning he checked out and paid his bill with cash, spending a total of more than $11,000. This went on for 53 days.”
After Rehaif was arrested, a federal judge told the jury that the government was not obligated to prove Rehaif knew his status in the country was illegal.
Rehaif in turn was convicted of possessing a firearm, a deportable offense, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Beyer was joined in the lead opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Assistant to the Solicitor General Allon Kedem did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Rehaif’s federal public defender, Rosemary Cakmis.