Breaking News

Argument preview: Court once again considers when prior state convictions result in federal penalties

Some federal laws impose or enhance penalties based on the defendant’s prior criminal convictions.  For example, the Armed Career Criminal Act requires a longer sentence for a defendant who has been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and has three prior convictions for “violent felonies.”  Even though Congress generally defines terms like “violent felonies,” those definitions may not always match up with the elements of a crime under state or tribal law, requiring the courts to determine whether a particular state offense is a qualifying prior conviction for purposes of federal law.

That is the question before the Court this morning in the case of James Castleman, in United States v. Castleman.  The federal government charged Castleman with a violation of a federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), which prohibits someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun.  The statute defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law (1) by someone who (as relevant here) has a child with the victim, which (2) “has as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”

Federal prosecutors relied on the fact that in 2001 Castleman had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor “domestic assault” in a Tennessee court.  The Tennessee statute prohibits “an assault” against someone with whom you have a child.  The statute defines assault as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury to another” or “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] physical contact with another [when] a reasonable person would regard the contact as extremely offensive or provocative.”  The statute defines “bodily injury” broadly, as “a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn or disfigurement, physical pain or temporary illness or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.”  The indictment in that state case did not provide any details of the offense, but rather tersely recited the elements of the offense, stating that he had “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury” to the victim, “WHO HAS A CHILD WITH HIM, thereby committing the offense of DOMESTIC ASSAULT.”

Castleman moved to dismiss the federal indictment, arguing that his state law conviction did not qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under Section 922(g)(9) because it did not include “the use of physical force” as an element.  The trial court agreed.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed that result, holding that the “physical force” element required “strong and violent” force.

Citing conflicts among the courts of appeals, the federal government asked the Supreme Court to grant certiorari, which it did in October.

In its brief, the government argues that, although federal law requires physical force for an earlier conviction to qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, it does not require the force to be violent.  Indeed, under the common law, which Congress is assumed to have relied on, “battery” could include even very minor touching.  Moreover, although the Court held in Johnson v. United States that, for purposes of another statute (the Armed Career Criminal Act), the phrase “violent felony” requires violent force, it “expressly left open the question whether” violent force is also required for purposes of the statute in Castleman (Section 922(g)) – which, the government contends, it is not.  But in any event, even if “violent” force were required under Section 922(g), that requirement is satisfied here because the Court in Johnson defined “physical force” as force that is “capable” of causing “physical pain or injury,” which “intentionally or knowingly” causing bodily injury will do.  Finally, the government warns of dire consequences if the Court were to uphold the decision below:  “[m]ost” people with domestic violence convictions are convicted under assault and battery laws similar to Tennessee’s, none of which would qualify as federal “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence” for purposes of Section 922(g).  Such a result, the government concludes, would be sharply at odds with Congress’s intent, reflected in Section 922(g), of keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

Responding to the government’s brief, Castleman accuses the government of reading Section 922(g) too expansively – so broadly, in fact, that it would “impose a lifetime firearms ban on people who engage in ‘offensive touching,’ or who cause ‘a paper cut or stubbed toe.’”  But, he counters, such conduct cannot seriously be regarded as an “act of violence.”  Moreover, Congress’s use of the words “physical force” – which suggests the use of actual power – and its classification of Section 922(g) as a crime of “violence” make clear that Congress intended the statute to apply more narrowly to cases involving “serious acts of violence.”  That narrower interpretation is bolstered by decisions like Johnson, which have required “violent force” in analogous statutory definitions.  Castleman also emphasizes that, for purposes of Section 922(g), the prior conviction must involve the “use” of physical force, which would in turn require active physical conduct by the defendant.  The government’s contention that the statute is satisfied whenever there is an injury, “no matter how it is produced, . . . would read the ‘use’ requirement out of the statute entirely.”  For his part, Castleman downplays the government’s ominous warnings about the effect of a decision in his favor, telling the Court that (among other things) state laws can address many of the government’s concerns.

The earlier Johnson case did not produce a close vote.  In a decision authored by Justice Scalia, the Court ruled in the defendant’s favor by a vote of seven to two, with only Justices Alito and Thomas dissenting.  But, as the government reiterates, the Court in Johnson made clear that it was not deciding whether “violent force” was required for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, emphasizing that its decision applied “only in the context of a statutory definition of ‘violent felony.’”  At today’s oral argument, it will be interesting to see whether this distinction carries weight in this context, and – if so – with which Justices.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Argument preview: Court once again considers when prior state convictions result in federal penalties, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 15, 2014, 7:19 AM),