After oral argument, the outcome in Henderson v. United States wasn’t really in doubt. The entire Court had expressed skepticism of the idea that a firearm owner convicted of a felony couldn’t lawfully sell his weapons on the open market, or transfer them to an independent third party. Today, in a crisp eight-pager by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of the firearm owner. Along the way, the Court ironed out some significant legal wrinkles. Of special note, the Court clarified that felons can be entitled to the benefits of equity in federal court.
When an individual surrenders his firearms to police and is later convicted of a felony, what happens to the firearms? The weapons can’t go back to the felon, because federal law prohibits felons from possessing firearms. Yet the felon still owns the weapons, which could have considerable financial, sentimental, or historical value. Understandably enough, many felons in this situation would like to sell or transfer their firearms, rather than let Uncle Sam indefinitely possess them. The question before the Court in this case was whether federal law gave felons that right to transfer.
In the decision under review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had ruled against transfer based on a broad view of “constructive possession” – roughly, the idea that someone can lack physical possession of an object but still exert enough control over it to count as possession for purposes of law. The court of appeals had also seemed to say that a convicted felon lacked “clean hands” and so could not take advantage of any form of equitable relief, including equitable transfers of property.
Today, however, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the firearm owners by allowing them to transfer their weapons to independent third parties, including to have the weapons sold on the open market. As Justice Kagan succinctly explained, this is a pragmatic solution that accords with the statute’s text and purpose, and also has the benefit of fitting snugly with common sense.
The Court started off by establishing a basic but important principle – namely, that federal district courts have “equitable authority, even after a criminal proceeding has ended, to order a law enforcement agency to turn over property it has obtained during the case to the rightful owner or his designee.” This key conclusion shifted attention away from the text of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and toward broader consideration of fairness and equity. In support of this point, the Court cited not one of its own precedents, but only a lower court opinion and a concession by the United States.
In a footnote, the Court quickly dispensed with the “unclean hands” reasoning adopted in the Eleventh Circuit decision below. Felons are not generally barred from invoking equity, the Court made clear. Instead, “[t]he unclean hands doctrine proscribes equitable relief when, but only when, an individual’s misconduct has ‘immediate and necessary relation to the equity that he seeks.’” Because the crime committed by Henderson, the firearm owner, “had nothing to do with his firearms,” his request for equitable transfer of his property wasn’t barred by the unclean-hands doctrine.
That left the argument that federal criminal law prohibits felons from possessing firearms either in or affecting interstate commerce. But the Court concluded that this prohibition on firearm possession didn’t extend so far as to prohibit firearm transfers. In framing this point, the Court invoked “the proverbial sticks in the bundle of property rights.” The idea here, as any first-year property student knows, is that property rights consist of bundles of interrelated subsidiary rights. One of the “sticks” in the bundle of property rights is possession, including both actual and constructive possession. Another, separate “stick” is the right to transfer or sell. Henderson wanted to use that second stick, which the Court described as: “a naked right of alienation—the capacity to sell or transfer his guns, unaccompanied by any control over them.”
The idea of constructive possession does impose some limit, however, since the felon cannot lawfully exert control over the weapons during or after the transfer. The Court noted that this restriction wouldn’t significantly limit open-market sales conducted by firearm dealers, but might prevent some requested transfers to specified parties. When reviewing third-party transfers, a trial court “may properly seek certain assurances: for example, it may ask the proposed transferee to promise to keep the guns away from the felon.” Clearly, the Court recognizes that “a promise” is a bond, but it also acknowledged that honor has its limits: “Even such a pledge, of course, might fail to provide an adequate safeguard, and a court should then disapprove the transfer.”
The Court’s decision was no surprise. At oral argument, the attorney representing the United States made concession after concession in an attempt to correct admitted governmental overreaching in the case. (For example, the government had previously refused to return a crossbow that, under federal law, the felon had every right to possess.) Despite all that effort, however, the government still had a very hard time explaining its opposition to most transfers overseen by district courts.
The fact that the result in this case was no surprise shouldn’t diminish its significance. Courts of appeals had denied felons the right to dispose of property that they owned but could no longer possess, and in doing so, those courts had reached some troubling and broadly applicable legal conclusions. Today, the Court corrected those errors.
Plain English: When people are arrested, they often surrender their firearms to police. Once those people are convicted of felonies, they can no longer lawfully possess their weapons. In this situation, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded, the felon can ask the government to transfer his firearms to an independent third party. This includes transfers to dealers for sale on the open market, but in some circumstances can also include directed transfers to specific people.