Voisine v. United States

PETITIONER: Stephen Voisine, et al.
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the District of Maine

DOCKET NO.: 14-10154
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Oct 30, 2015
ARGUED: Feb 29, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Ilana Eisenstein - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the respondent
Virginia G. Villa - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 2003 and 2005, Stephen Voisine was convicted of assaulting a woman (with whom he was in a domestic relationship) under a Maine state statute that establishes that a person is guilty of assault if that person “knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly causes bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” A violation of that statute is misdemeanor domestic violence assault if the victim is a family or household member. In 2009, Voisine was arrested on the federal misdemeanor charge of killing a bald eagle. During the course of the investigation, police recovered a rifle from Voisine and, because of his earlier misdemeanor assault convictions, arrested and charged Voisine with violating a federal statute that makes it a crime for a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to possess a firearm.

William Armstrong III was convicted of assaulting his wife in violation of Maine’s misdemeanor domestic violence assault statutes in 2002 and 2008. In 2010, police searched the Armstrong residence for drugs and drug paraphernalia and discovered ammunition which was later linked to guns Armstrong had transported to a friend’s house. Armstrong was also charged with violating the federal statute that makes it a crime for a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to possess a firearm.

Voisine and Armstrong moved to dismiss the charges against them and argued that Maine’s misdemeanor domestic violence assault statutes do not constitute misdemeanor domestic violence under the federal statute because “recklessness” is sufficient for conviction under the Maine statute, but not the federal one. The district court denied the motions, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed. The defendants petitioned for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case in light of that Court’s decision in United States v. Castleman, which held that offensive touching satisfied the “physical force” requirement of the federal statute. On remand, the appellate court again held that Maine’s statute constituted misdemeanor domestic violence under the federal statute.

Question

Does a misdemeanor crime that requires only a showing of recklessness qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under federal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9)?

Media for Voisine v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 29, 2016 in Voisine v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2016 in Voisine v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 14-10154 Voisine versus United States.

Elena Kagan:

Federal law has long prohibited people convicted of felonies from possessing guns.

But many domestic abusers are charged with and convicted of misdemeanors rather than felonies, so they weren't covered by that restriction.

Congress viewed that as a significant loophole in the Firearms Laws.

To close it, Congress extended the gun ban to any person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, a term defines to include any crime committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the use of physical force.

This case is about whether a misdemeanor conviction for recklessly assaulting a domestic relation involves the use of physical force and so triggers the Federal Firearms ban.

Now what you have to know is background, is that there are three basic mental states associated with committing a criminal assault, intentional, knowing, and reckless.

A person commits an assault intentionally when he has the conscious object of causing harm, that is he wants to injure another person.

A person commits an assault knowingly when he doesn't have that intent but still he acts in a way that he understands is practically certain to cause harm to another.

And a person commits an assault recklessly when he isn't certain that his action will result in injury but he understands that there is a substantial risk it would do so and he goes ahead anyway.

A couple of years ago in a case called United States v. Castleman, we held that intentional and knowing assaults each count as a use of physical force and so triggered the Federal Firearms ban.

But we left open the question of whether the same was true of a reckless assault.

We now say it is. Nothing about the language “use of physical force” suggests that Congress meant to draw a line between the knowing assaults we considered in Castleman and the reckless ones at issue here.

Dictionaries define the word use to mean the act of employing something and a person can employ force whether he thinks it’s certain or only substantially likely that his actions will injure another.

For example a person who throws a plate against the wall in anger near where his wife is standing uses force regardless whether he knows for sure that a shard will ricochet and strike her or whether he's only aware that there is a substantial risk of that result.

Accordingly, the statutory text indicates that reckless assaults just like knowing ones are covered by Federal Firearms Law.

And that also accords with the statutory history.

In passing this legislation, Congress set out to prevent the many domestic abusers convicted under state misdemeanor laws from owning guns, and Congress knew that the great majority of those laws, the laws in 34 States plus the District of Columbia covered reckless assaults.

If we were to read this statute differently than we do, we would exclude domestic abusers whom Congress meant to include in the firearms ban and we would jeopardize the ban’s effectiveness in nearly 70% of states.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reached the same conclusion, and so we affirm its judgment.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joins except for part three.