Published on: Friday, June 21, 2019

Today, in Rehaif v. United States, No. 17-9560 (June 21, 2019), the Supreme Court held that, in a prosecution under 18 U. S. C. §922(g) and §924(a)(2), the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm.  

Petitioner Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot two firearms at a shooting range. Rehaif was indicted on two counts of possession of a firearm or ammunition by an alien unlawfully in the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(5)(A) and 924(a)(2). The Indictment alleged that Rehaif’s student visa terminated before his possession of a firearm and ammunition, rendering him an alien “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” Before trial, the government asked the district court to instruct the jury that “[t]he United States is not required to prove that [Rehaif] knew he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” Rehaif objected and asserted the government was required to prove both that he knowingly (1) possessed the firearm and ammunition and (2), at the time of possession, was aware of his unlawful immigration status. The court overruled Rehaif’s objection and instructed the jury that “[t]he United States is not required to prove [Rehaif] knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States.”  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court's 7-2 opinion, written by Justice Breyer, summed up the Court’s statutory interpretation holding as follows:

A federal statute, 18 U. S. C. §922(g), provides that “[i]tshall be unlawful”  for certain individuals to possess fire-arms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” Ibid. A separate provision,  §924(a)(2), adds that anyone who “knowingly  violates” the first  provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

The question here concerns the scope of the word “knowingly.” Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he  engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)? We hold that the word “knowingly” applies both  to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status. To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he  possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.

Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.  

Congratulations to the Federal Defender’s Office of the Middle District of Florida, including Rosemary Cakmis who argued the case, Robert Godfrey who wrote the petition for writ of certiorari, and Allison Guagliardo, Adeel Bashir, and Conrad Kahn who assisted on the merits briefing, which is available on the Supreme Court’s website, hereThe Training Division provides resource materials for defending federal firearm cases.