Published on: Thursday, March 27, 2014

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in United States v. Castleman (No. 12-1371), in which it held that Castleman's prior Tennessee conviction for "intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] bodily injury to" the mother of his child qualified as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" under 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9).

Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor first pointed to the legislative history of the statue, noting that Congress sought to close a loophole in the gun laws: "While felons had long been barred from possessing guns, many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors."  Turning to the definition of "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" in the statute, the Court focused on the requirement that such an offense have as an element "the use or attempted use of physical force."

In interpreting "physical force" the Court applied the common-law definition "namely, offensive touching," and concluded that such a definition "fits perfectly" in cases involving convictions for common-law battery, such as Castleman's. 

The majority relied on Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010) in support of its conclusion.  In Johnson, the Court addressed the "force clause" in the ACCA's definition of "violent felony," which defines a "violent felony" as an offense that has "as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force."  The Court held that the force in that clause must be  "violent force," that is, "force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person."  Addressing a prior battery conviction, the Court held that the common-law element of "force" in the crime of battery, which can be the slightest offensive touching, does not fit with the kind of "violent force" Congress had in mind in enacting the ACCA..  As a result, generic battery is not a "violent felony" for purposes of the ACCA.  Because  the intent behind the enactment of ACCA differed from the intent underlying §922(g)(9), the Castleman majority reasoned that the common-law meaning of force should apply in interpreting the latter.

For more on the opinion, see this SCOTUSblog post.