NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 93-445. Argued March 23, 1993 -- Decided May 16, 1994


Petitioners Beecham and Jones were each convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which makes it unlawful for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. Title 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) qualifies the definition of "conviction": "What constitutes a conviction [is] determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held," ibid. (choice of law clause), and "[a]ny conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction . . . ," ibid. (exemption clause). The respective District Courts decided that Beecham's and Jones' prior federal convictions could not be counted because petitioners' civil rights had been restored under state law. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that state restoration of civil rights could not undo the federal disability flowing from a federal conviction.

Held: Petitioners can take advantage of §921(a)(20) only if their civil rights have been restored under federal law, the law of the jurisdiction where the earlier proceedings were held. The choice of law clause is logically read to apply to the exemption clause. The inquiry throughout the statutory scheme is whether the person has a qualifying conviction on his record. The choice of law clause defines the rule for determining what constitutes a conviction. Asking, under the exemption clause, whether a person's civil rights have been restored is just one step in determining whethersomething should "be considered a conviction," a determination that, by the terms of the choice of law clause, is governed by the law of the convicting jurisdiction. That the other three items listed in the exemption clause are either always or almost always done by the jurisdiction of conviction also counsels in favor of interpreting civil rights restoration as possessing the same attribute. This statutory structure rebuts the arguments used by other Circuits to support their conclusion that the two clauses should be read separately. Moreover, even if there is no federal law procedure for restoring civil rights to federal felons, nothing in §921(a)(20) supports the assumption that Congress intended all felons to have access to all the procedures specified in the exemption clause, especially because there are many States that do not restore civil rights, either. Because the statutory language is unambiguous, the rule of lenity is inapplicable. See Chapman v. United States, 500 U.S. 453, 463 464. Pp. 3-7.

993 F. 2d 1539 (first case) and 993 F. 2d 1131 (second case), affirmed.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


* Together with Jones v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.