Bryan v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Randon Bragdon's Dental Office

DOCKET NO.: 96-8422
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 184 (1998)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 15, 1998

Kent L. Jones - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Roger B. Adler - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

18 USC section 924(a)(1)(D) prohibits anyone from "willfully" dealing in firearms without a federal license. The Government presented evidence at Sillasse Bryan's trial to show that he did not have a federal license to deal in firearms, that he was dealing in firearms, and that he knew his conduct was unlawful. No evidence was presented that Bryan was aware of the federal law that prohibits dealing in firearms without a federal license. The trial judge refused to instruct the jury that Bryan could be convicted only if he knew of the federal licensing requirement. The trial judge instructed that a person acts "willfully" if he acts with the bad purpose to disobey or disregard the law, but that he need not be aware of the specific law that his conduct may be violating. A jury found Bryan guilty. In affirming, the Court of Appeals concluded that the instruction was proper and that the Government had shown that Bryan had acted willfully.


Does the term "willfully" in 18 USC section 924(a)(1)(D) require proof that the defendant knew that his conduct was unlawful and that he knew of the federal licensing requirement for dealing in firearms?

Media for Bryan v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1998 in Bryan v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 96-8422, Sillasse Bryan v. United States.

Do not talk until you get out of the courtroom.

The Court remains in session.

Mr. Adler.

Roger B. Adler:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case is about whether Congress' use of a wilful mens rea standard in title 18 U.S.C. 924(a)(1)(D) requires proof of knowledge of Federal licensure.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Adler, our acoustics are very good here.

You don't have to speak quite that loudly to get through to us.

Roger B. Adler:

Yes, Your Honor.

Petitioner urges the Court and petitioner adopts the reasoning of the Circuit Courts of Appeal of the Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh in following this Court's holding in Ratzlaf v. the United States that wilfully, as used in this statute, requires proof of actual knowledge of licensure.

Here, this Court should know that the--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Adler, do you take the position that, in order to act wilfully within the meaning of this particular statute, that the defendant has to have knowledge of the specific statutory provision?

Roger B. Adler:

--No, Your Honor.

We part company with the Government by indicating that it is knowledge that there is a Federal licensing requirement.

Chapter and verse are not required in order to convict the defendant, beyond a--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, you urge, then, that the defendant has to know there is a Federal licensing requirement for gun dealers?

Roger B. Adler:

--Yes, Your Honor, knowledge or suspicion of the existence of a State licensing requirement, municipal ordinance or the like, will not suffice under respect for federalism this statute penalizes, as only it can, a violation of a Federal licensing requirement, and--

Antonin Scalia:

It isn't enough for him to know he can't sell firearms with out a license, generally?

He has to know that he can't sell it without a Federal license?

Roger B. Adler:

--That is what Congress wrote.

That was the intent of the drafters of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, and let me put this into a context, if I may.

The Government in this case has knowingly chosen to pick the most difficult subdivision under section 924 by proceeding to prosecute under subdivision (a)(1)(D).

It chose not to prosecute on a lesser standard of knowingly for making a false statement in the context of the application to acquire the weapon under 924(a)(1)(A).

It chose not to prosecute under 18 U.S.C. 922(k), trafficking in defaced firearms.

It chose not to proceed under a violation of the Travel Act.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, why would the Congress want to exonerate or not to punish under this statute a man who was quite sure that a license was required but he thought it was a State license.

Roger B. Adler:


Anthony M. Kennedy:

You say respect for federalism means that we have to accept your view that he has to know that it's a Federal statute.

It seems to me that Congress wanted to punish people who had a guilty mind and who were dealing in drugs knowing... or dealing in weapons knowing that it was illegal to transfer without a license, and the fact that State, municipal, Federal license, it seems to me certainly the state of mind is the same.

Roger B. Adler:

--Well, quite to the contrary, and I think it has to be viewed in the following context, Justice Kennedy.