- Does the criminal statute 18 U.S.C § 922(g), which requires a conviction for a predicate domestic violence crime involving the “use or attempted use of physical force” require violent contact?
- Does a state misdemeanor for domestic violence, which requires proof of “bodily injury,” qualify for an 18 U.S.C § 922(g) conviction?
In 1996, Congress passed what is now Section 922(g)(9) of Title 18, which criminalizes the possession of firearms by certain individuals. Section 922(g)(9) makes it a federal crime for a person convicted in state court of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm if the misdemeanor involved the use or attempted use of physical force. In 2001, James Alvin Castleman was convicted in Tennessee of misdemeanor domestic assault, which requires proof of causing bodily injury to another. Seven years later, Castleman was indicted for possessing a firearm in violation of Section 922(g)(9). The Supreme Court will address whether Castleman’s conviction qualifies as a predicate offense for Section 922(g)(9) and whether the language “physical force” in Section 922(g)(9) requires violent contact. The Court’s ruling will affect the scope of limitations on domestic violence offenders’ possession of firearms, and may serve as precedent for other misdemeanor offenses which contain the language “physical force.”
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Section 922(g)(9) of Title 18, United States Code, makes it a crime for any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm. The phrase “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is defined to include any federal, state, or tribal misdemeanor offense, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.” 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)(A). The question presented is:
Whether respondent’s Tennessee conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault by intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child qualifies as a conviction for a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
In 2001, Respondent James Alvin Castleman pled guilty, in Tennessee state court, to one count of misdemeanor domestic assault in violation of Tennessee Code § 39-13-111(b).) One way a person commits misdemeanor domestic assault in Tennessee is by intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury to a domestic abuse victim. In Castleman’s case, it was alleged that he intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury to the mother of his child. The Tennessee court imposed a sentence of 11 months and 29 days to be served by supervised probation, which Castleman subsequently completed. Castleman later testified that the judge never told him, when he pled guilty, that he might be liable under federal law if he possessed a firearm at a later date. He claims he never would have pled guilty had he known this consequence.
Seven years after his conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault, federal agents discovered that Castleman and his wife were buying firearms and selling them on the black market—with one of the alleged firearms recovered in Chicago. To accomplish their scheme, Castleman’s wife allegedly would lie on federal forms that she was the real buyer, purchase the weapons, and then turn them over to Castleman.
Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) (“Section 922(g)(9)” or “Lautenberg Amendment”), it is “unlawful for any person who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to transport, ship, receive, or possess any firearms which have been affected by or affects interstate commerce. This law could apply to Castleman if his Tennessee misdemeanor has an element of “use or attempted use of physical force.” The Tennessee statute under which Castleman was convicted has an element of“bodily injury.”
Castleman was indicted on two counts of possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee dismissed the two counts, reasoning that Castleman’s misdemeanor did not qualify as a domestic violence crime requiring “the use or attempted use of physical force.” The district court read the “physical force” language as requiring “force in the sense of violent contact,” rather than merely “force as a scientific concept relating to the movement of matter.” According to the district court, because the Tennessee statute allowed convictions for assaults not involving physical contact—i.e., only “bodily injury” was required for a conviction—the state offense did not qualify as a predicate offense for 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). The Petitioner, United States, moved for reconsideration, but this motion was denied.
The United States appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the district court. On October 1, 2013, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether Castleman’s misdemeanor domestic violence conviction was a predicate crime for 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).
In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court interpreted the language “physical force” for predicate felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1), as requiring more than mere touching. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the language “physical force” under the Lautenberg Amendment includes causing bodily injury.
HOW FAR DID CONGRESS INTEND TO REACH?
In support of the United States, the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police contends that Congress, through the Lautenberg Amendment, intended to remove firearms from the hands of all domestic abusers. To allow law enforcement to effect this goal, the Chiefs of Police argue that there must be nationwide consistency in interpreting the statute, and that a violent force requirement would limit prosecutors’ ability to charge convicted domestic abusers. Similarly, the Brady Center to Stop Gun Violence and other anti-firearms groups express concern that a narrow reading of the Amendment would allow dangerous domestic abusers to obtain firearms, contrary to Congress’s intention. Echoing this concern, the Children’s Defense Fund (“CDF”) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (“AAP”) maintain that this limited reading would effectively terminate the Lautenberg Amendment (the law which bans possession of firearms by domestic violence offenders) in nearly half of the states.
Castleman agrees that domestic violence is a serious problem. However, Castleman insists that Congress only intended the Lautenberg Amendment to reach violent conduct. Castleman stresses that the Lautenberg Amendment effectively creates a lifetime ban for those convicted of a predicate offense. Thus, according to Castleman, if a domestic misdemeanor involving mere touching satisfies as a predicate offense, a person might face a lifetime ban on a constitutionally protected interest by engaging in offensive conduct or causing a paper cut or a stubbed toe. Also troubling for Castleman is the fact that people who are not violent might facethe 10-year prison term associated with a violation. Furthermore,Castleman worries if violence is not necessary for a crime of domestic violence under the Lautenberg Amendment, a person will not have notice that they might lose their right to own a firearm if they plead guilty to a misdemeanor. This would raise concerns that the Lautenberg Amendment does not comport to the notice requirements of due process.
How Will The Law Affect The Public?
The CDF and AAP worry that the lower court’s holding will result in re-arming thousands of domestic violence abusers, placing children in direct harm. Various police departments, prosecutors, and city officials also worry that giving domestic violence offenders access to firearms endangers law enforcement officers who are called on to protect domestic violence victims. These local officials argue that increased risks for police will raise the costs of protecting law enforcement who are called on to investigate domestic violence incidents.
Castleman disagrees with the picture painted by the local officials, noting that many states have laws prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing firearms. In any case, according to Castleman, the Lautenberg Amendment only focuses on individuals who have previously committed acts of physical violence. To expand the Amendment to reach all domestic abusers, Castleman claims that the Court would have to extend the statute beyond what Congress legislated, thereby violating separation of powers.
In this case, the Court must first determine whether Castleman’s state domestic assault conviction qualifies as a predicate offense for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Then the Court must determine whether physical force also requires violent force. The government argues that Castleman’s state conviction must qualify as a predicate offense, even without a violent force requirement, because of Congress’s intent and statutory interpretation of common-law definitions. Castleman contends that recognizing a violent force requirement in predicate offenses is necessary to effectuate congressional intent in a more limited enforcement of the statute.
DID CONGRESS INTEND FOR A STATE CONVICTION FOR MISDEMEANOR ASSAULT TO QUALIFY AS A PREDICATE OFFENSE FOR SECTION 922(g)?
The government contends that Castleman’s misdemeanor domestic assault conviction qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under § 922(g)(9). Castleman argues that a conviction under Tennessee’s misdemeanor assault statute does not qualify as a predicate offense for § 922(g)(9).
The United States argues that violent force is not required for a conviction to qualify as a predicate offense. The government asserts that the federal crime of domestic violence requires a predicate offense to include the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon. The government urges the Court to adopt the common-law definition of force, which generally requires only the use or attempted use of physical force rather than the direct use of physical force. The United States argues that indirect or subtle force could include acts such as poisoning, which have the same effect as traditionally accepted forceful acts such as physical blows and fired shots. This definition, the government argues, is consistent with congressional intent to incorporate common-law meanings into statutory interpretation. The government points out that the lower court interpretations would prevent many state domestic violence laws from qualifying as predicate offenses for the federal firearms ban because many of these statutes do not require, as an element, the use of violent physical force. This reading would effectively nullify § 922(g)(9) in many states, which, the government argues, Congress could not have intended. The government concedes that Congress was undoubtedly concerned with violent conduct; however, the government argues that Congress was also concerned with individuals who can avoid the federal firearms ban by pleading down to misdemeanor offenses, thus creating a loophole for this category of convicted individuals. The government argues that in order to effectuate Congress’s intent, § 922(g)(9) must apply to classic assault and battery statutes that do not have, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force.
On the other hand, Castleman argues that Tennessee’s misdemeanor assault statute does not contain the elements necessary for a conviction under that statute to qualify as a predicate offense for § 922(g)(9). According to Castleman, the federal firearms ban requires that a predicate offense has, as an element, the use of physical force. Castleman distinguishes between the ordinary meaning of force, which could be satisfied by touching, and physical force, which has a certain degree of strength, power, or violence. Castleman argues that allowing the Tennessee conviction to qualify as a predicate offense contravenes congressional purpose to keep firearms from only persons who engaged in serious domestic abuse. In Castleman’s view, classifying the Tennessee offense as a predicate offense would overextend the Lautenberg Amendment to persons convicted of not only violent crimes, but ordinary crimes as well. In reality, Castleman argues, the Tennessee statute allows convictions requiring only a minimal degree of force, such as poking or shoving a victim, whereas a conviction under § 924(e)(2)(B)(i) requires a strong and violent degree of physical force. As a result, Castleman asserts, the Tennessee domestic assault statute is not necessarily a predicate offense. According to Castleman’s reading, the Tennessee statute’s element of force requires a lesser degree of force and cannot qualify as a predicate offense that necessarily satisfies the federal firearms ban.
DOES PHYSICAL FORCE REQUIRE THE USE OF VIOLENT FORCE?
SHOULD THE ACCA DEFINITION APPLY TO MISDEMEANOR CRIMES OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?
The United States urges the Court to adopt the common-law definition of misdemeanor battery, rather than the more restrictive definition of violent physical force from the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). ACCA, the government argues, should not apply here because this context—misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence under § 922(g)(9)—is very different from the violent felony context of the ACCA. Because § 921(a)(33)(A) does not define physical force, the government claims that the Court must choose between a general definition requiring a certain degree of power, violence, or pressure, and the common-law understanding of force, which includes even slight offensive contact. The government argues that the common-law approach recognizes that no clear line can be drawn between different degrees of violence and instead prohibits all degrees of violence. The Court, the government argues, generally adopts the common-law definition unless certain exceptions apply, such as the ACCA violent felony context; in that context, the common-law definition could not be reconciled with the requirements of a violent felony conviction, which inherently connotes strong physical force. In the government’s view, the “violence” language in this context does not have the same operation as “violent” in the ACCA context. As a result, the government argues, the ACCA definition should not apply to § 922(g)(9).
On the other hand, Castleman argues that the ACCA, as the immediate antecedent to § 922(g)(9), should determine the definition of physical force. Because the two statutes use virtually identical language, Castleman contends that the ACCA definition of physical force should apply here as well. Contrary to the government’s position, Castleman argues that violent force involves a substantial degree of force, great force, or force that could produce serious physical injury. Under this interpretation, the use of physical force is not an element of Tennessee’s misdemeanor assault provision. Castleman argues that if it is possible for an individual to commit a state law misdemeanor without the use of physical force, then that offense does not have, as a necessary element, the use or attempted use of physical force.
HOW DOES THE VIOLENT FORCE REQUIREMENT AFFECT THE SCOPE OF § 922(G)(9)?
The United States argues that limiting the scope of § 922(g)(9) so that it does not apply to common-law misdemeanor battery offenses will impermissibly impair the scope of the statute; because the statute is limited to misdemeanor offenses, no residual clause could capture the convictions that fail to qualify as predicate offenses, even though these potentially non-qualifying convictions would otherwise qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence. The government argues that even if the physical force element does require violent force, a conviction for intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to a family member has, as an element, the use of violent force. Lastly, the government argues that the definition of physical force encompasses the intentional causation of bodily injury by recognizing force that is capable of causing physical pain or injury as sufficient violent force. As a result, only the common-law meaning of force can allow § 922(g)(9) to exercise the scope that Congress intended it to have.
Castleman argues that the scope of § 922(g)(9) should be confined to those individuals who have committed truly violent offenses. Under the government’s interpretation, Castleman argues, nonviolent offenders would be subject to prison terms and firearm prohibitions even if they were previously unaware of any such prohibition. The rule of lenity, which requires that courts construe ambiguous criminal statutes in favor of the defendant, compels courts to interpret § 921(a)(33)(A) as requiring violent force. As a result, Castleman maintains, the scope of § 922(g)(9) should be limited to convictions for offenses requiring violent force. Castleman also argues that because § 922(g)(9) is a total prohibition on firearm possession, the statute implicates a constitutionally protected interest and must be read narrowly to prevent a deprivation of constitutional rights.
In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether a state law conviction for misdemeanor assault involving bodily injury qualifies as a predicate offense for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence that would prohibit the convicted person from possessing a firearm under federal law. The Court must also determine whether the language “physical force” requires violent force. The Court’s ruling will influence the statutory interpretation and continued vitality of the federal firearms ban for persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. The Court’s decision will also impact gun policy and the legislative goals behind the development and enforcement of domestic violence laws.
- United States Attorney’s Manual, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Restrictions on the Possession of Firearms by Individuals Convicted of a Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence.
- Greg Stohr, Bloomberg, Gun Ban for Domestic Abusers Draws U.S. High Court Review, (Oct. 1, 2013).