SCOTUS Resolves Split Regarding Nature of Required Predicate Offense in the Gun Control Act

Last month the Supreme Court issued a ruling in U.S. v. Hayes, 129 S.Ct. 1079 (Feb. 24, 2009), which resolved a split regarding the question of whether 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) requires that the offense predicate to a defendant's firearm possession conviction have as an element a domestic relationship between offender and victim. Here is an excerpt:

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., has long prohibited possession of a firearm by any person convicted of a felony. In 1996, Congress extended the prohibition to include persons convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” § 922(g)(9). The definition of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” contained in § 921(a)(33)(A), is at issue in this case.

. . .

Asserting that his 1994 West Virginia battery conviction did not qualify as a predicate offense under § 922(g)(9), Hayes moved to dismiss the indictment. Section 922(g)(9), Hayes maintained, applies only to persons previously convicted of an offense that has as an element a domestic relationship between aggressor and victim. The West Virginia statute under which he was convicted in 1994, Hayes observed, was a generic battery proscription, not a law designating a domestic relationship between offender and victim as an element of the offense. The United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia rejected Hayes's argument and denied his motion to dismiss the indictment. 377 F.Supp.2d 540, 541-542 (2005). Hayes then entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. A § 922(g)(9) predicate offense, the Court of Appeals held, must “have as an element a domestic relationship between the offender and the victim.” 482 F.3d 749, 751 (2007). In so ruling, the Fourth Circuit created a split between itself and the nine other Courts of Appeals that had previously published opinions deciding the same question. According to those courts, § 922(g)(9) does not require that the offense predicate to the defendant's firearm possession conviction have as an element a domestic relationship between offender and victim. We granted certiorari, *1084 552 U.S. ----, 128 S.Ct. 1702, 170 L.Ed.2d 512 (2008), to resolve this conflict.

. . .

Most sensibly read, then, § 921(a)(33)(A) defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as a misdemeanor offense that (1) “has, as an element, the use [of force],” and (2) is committed by a person who has a specified domestic relationship with the victim. To obtain a conviction in a § 922(g)(9) prosecution, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim of the predicate offense was the defendant's current or former spouse or was related to the defendant in another specified way. But that relationship, while it must be established, need not be denominated an element of the predicate offense.


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