RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Federal Bureau of Investigation Headquarters
DOCKET NO.: 13-1487
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 575 US (2015)
GRANTED: Oct 20, 2014
ARGUED: Feb 24, 2015
DECIDED: May 18, 2015
Ann O'Connell - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Daniel R. Ortiz - for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Tony Henderson was a former United States Border Patrol Agent who was charged with, among other crimes, distribution of marijuana. On June 9, 2006, two days after he was arrested, Henderson voluntarily turned 19 firearms over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which he argued was for "safekeeping as a condition of the bond." He later pled guilty to his narcotics charges.
In 2008 and 2009, Henderson requested that the FBI return his firearms so that he could transfer them to a purported buyer, but the FBI refused to do so. Henderson then moved the district court to allow him to transfer the firearms to the 2009 buyer or his wife. The magistrate judge recommended denial of the motion because Henderson was a convicted felon, and the district court adopted the recommendation. Henderson appealed and argued that, because he had not been given notice that his guilty plea would disqualify him from firearm ownership, he is entitled to relief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court.
Does a felony conviction, which makes it illegal for the felon to possess firearms, also prevent a court from ordering that the government transfer non-contraband firearms to a third party to whom the defendant has sold his property interests or sell the firearms for the defendant's benefit?
Media for Henderson v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 2015 in Henderson v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 18, 2015 in Henderson v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Kagan has the opinion of the Court in case 13-1487 Henderson v. United States.
Sometimes during the course of a criminal prosecution the federal government ends up with guns owned by the person who is accused of the crime.
The police might take those guns during a search where the defendant might turn them over himself.
Either way if the defendant is convicted of a felony he won't be able to get the guns back because the federal statute prohibits convicted felons from possessing any firearms.
In this case petitioner Tony Henderson was charged with a drug crime and the judge required him to turn over his guns to the FBI as a condition of getting out on bail.
Henderson eventually pleaded guilty and served some time in prison.
When he was released he knew he couldn't get his guns back because of the statute that bans felons from possessing guns.
So he asked the FBI to transfer his guns to a friend who had agreed to buy them, but the FBI refused.
Henderson then asked the Federal District Court to order the FBI to transfer his guns, but both that Court and the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit refused too on the grounds that if they agreed to Henderson's request he would possess the guns in violation of Federal Law.
Now to understand this case you have to realize that possession is a broad term in Federal Law.
It includes not just actual possession that is physical custody of a thing, but also something called constructive possession.
I have constructive possession over a thing when I can exercise control over it, even if someone else is physically holding it at the time.
That means the firearm law at issue here prevents a felon not only from holding his guns himself, but also for maintaining control over those guns in the hands of others.
In this case the lower courts and the government thought that Henderson would have that kind of control simply by virtue of picking the person who would next receive the guns.
We had to decide whether that's right, does a felon control and therefore possess his firearms any time he asks the Court to transfer them to someone whom he is designated.
We think not, in this situation a Court-supervised transfer of guns held by a federal agency a felon only has control over his guns if after the transfer is completed the felon will have the ability to use them or direct their use.
Designating the next recipient is not itself enough.
So for example, the Federal Law allows a felon to place his guns in a secure trust for distribution to his children after his death.
What it does not allow is a transfer to a person who would allow a felon to decide how the guns should be used in the future.
One way to ensure that a transfer complies with Federal Law is to hand the guns over to a firearms dealer who can then sell them on the open market and give the felon the money from the sale.
But that is not the only option, a Court can also approve the transfer to a person who expects to keep the guns so long as the Court is satisfied that that person will not later allow the felon to use the guns or to influence their use.
Neither of the courts below apply these principles to Henderson's request so we vacate the judgment of the 11th Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.
The opinion of the Court is unanimous.