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Opinion analysis: State conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault counts as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” for purposes of federal gun restrictions

One day after oral arguments in a high-stakes battle over whether a corporation must comply with laws and regulations that violate the religious beliefs of the family that owns the company, the Court’s nine Justices were back at work again yesterday morning.  They issued just one decision, in United States v. Castleman.  As I explained in my preview of the case, the question before the Justices was whether James Castleman’s state conviction for “misdemeanor domestic assault,” arising out of an incident involving the mother of his child, qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under federal law, thereby prohibiting him from having a gun.

In an opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, yesterday the Court held that it does.   The Court began its decision by reiterating that domestic violence is pervasive; this pervasiveness, combined with the danger created when guns and domestic violence mix, was what prompted Congress to enact the gun prohibition in 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).  In particular, the Court explained, Congress wanted to “close a dangerous loophole” in prior restrictions on gun possession that often resulted when perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted of misdemeanors, rather than felonies.

The case turned on the meaning of the phrase “use . . . of physical force” in Section 922(g)(9):  is it limited to “violent force,” or does it instead include crimes involving any physical force?  In holding that it is the latter, the Court relied heavily on its 2010 decision in Johnson v. United States, in which the question before the Court was whether a conviction for battery constituted a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  In disposing of that case, the Court noted that, “at common law, the element of force in the crime of battery was ‘satisfied by even the slightest offensive touching.’”  That definition of force, the Court held today, “fits perfectly” in Castleman’s case:  not only is it consistent with what Congress might have intended in defining a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” but many forms of domestic violence would not, in other contexts, be regarded as especially “violent.”  That conclusion, the Court added, is bolstered by the status of state laws when Congress enacted Section 922(g)(9).  If offensive touching were not regarded as “force,” Section 922(g)(9) would not have applied in ten states, making up thirty percent of the nation’s population, at all.

The Court then turned to whether Castleman’s conviction under Tennessee law was a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” which would depend on whether his conviction “ha[d], as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force” – which, of course, the Court had just defined as including “offensive touching.”  Here, although the Tennessee law under which Castleman was convicted could theoretically apply to assaults that do not involve the use of force, the Court’s task was made easier by the parties’ agreement that the law was divisible – that is, that it could determine whether Castleman’s conviction involved the same elements as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” simply by looking at Castleman’s indictment.  And “that analysis,” the Court observed, “is straightforward:  Castleman pleaded guilty to having ‘intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury’ to the mother of his child,” which “necessarily involves the use of physical force.”  As such, his crime does constitute a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” for purposes of Section 922(g)(9).

Although all of the Justices agreed with the result that the Court reached, two Justices wrote separate opinions.  Justice Scalia concurred in part and concurred in the judgment; he would have interpreted the phrase “physical force” more narrowly to “require[] force capable of causing physical pain or bodily injury.”  Justice Alito concurred in the judgment only, in a brief opinion joined by Justice Thomas.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: State conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault counts as “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” for purposes of federal gun restrictions, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 27, 2014, 9:54 AM),