RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Pomona Police Department
DOCKET NO.: 92-1441
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
CITATION: 511 US 600 (1994)
ARGUED: Nov 30, 1993
DECIDED: May 23, 1994
Jennifer L. De Angelis - on behalf of the Petitioner
James A. Feldman - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
Media for Staples v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 1993 in Staples v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 23, 1994 in Staples v. United States
The first case I have to announce is No. 92-1441, Staples versus United States.
This case is before us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Section 5861(d) of the National Firearms Act makes it a crime to possess a machinegun that has not been registered with the Federal Government.
A machinegun is defined as a weapon that shoots more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger.
Petitioner was charged with violating Section 5861(d) after it was discovered that a semi automatic rifle in his possession that is a rifle that will fire only one shot with each pull of the trigger have been converted to fire fully automatically.
At trial, petitioner testified that he believed that the rifle would fire only one shot with each pull of the trigger and he asked the District Court to instruct the jury that to establish the elements of the offense under Section 5861(d), the government was required to prove that he knew the weapon would fire fully automatically.
The District Court declined to give that instruction.
Petitioner was convicted and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the conviction.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse.
To obtain a conviction under Section 5861(d), the government should have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that petitioner knew that the rifle had the characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a machinegun.
While Section 5861(d) itself was silent concerning the mens rea element required for a conviction.
We must construe the statute in light of the background assumption of the common law that mens rea is required for every crime, and traditionally at common law, the mens rea necessary for a criminal conviction required that an accused at least know the facts the made his conduct illegal, here that would require the petitioner to have known that his rifle could fire fully automatically.
It is true that in some cases concerning so-called "public welfare" offenses we have understood some criminal statutes to dispense with the requirement that the defendant know the facts that bring his conduct within the scope of statute.
The statutes we have interpreted in that fashion, however, typically deal with the regulation of harmful or injurious items or as we described them in one case dangerous or deleterious devices or products or obnoxious waste materials.
When dealing with such statute, we have reasoned that as long as a defendant knows generally that he is dealing with a dangerous item that places him in responsible relation to public danger he should be alerted to the probability of strict regulation.
We have concluded that the defendant need not know that he has a precise item regulated by the statute in order to be convicted for violating the statutes commands.
In this case, Section 5861(d) does not define such a public welfare offense.
Guns are not obnoxious or deleterious items as we have understood those terms in the past.
There is a longstanding tradition of widespread lawful gun ownership in this country and we cannot say that a person who merely possesses the gun knows what he stands in responsible relation to a public danger such that he should be subjected to criminal sanctions because the items in his possession turns out to be subject to regulations under the National Firearms Act.
If Congress had intended to subject the gun owners to criminal penalties when they only knew that they possess lawful items, we think Congress should have spoken more clearly to that effect.
Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice O'Connor has joined; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackmun has joined.