415 U.S. 814 (1974), 72-1076, Huddleston v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 72-1076
Citation:415 U.S. 814, 94 S.Ct. 1262, 39 L.Ed.2d 782
Party Name:Huddleston v. United States
Case Date:March 26, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 814

415 U.S. 814 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 1262, 39 L.Ed.2d 782



United States

No. 72-1076

United States Supreme Court

March 26, 1974

Argued November 7, 1973




Petitioner, a previously convicted felon, was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6), a part of the Gun Control [94 S.Ct. 1264] Act of 1968, by falsely stating, in connection with the redemption from a pawnbroker of three guns petitioner had pawned, that he had not been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year. The pawnbroker was a federally licensed firearms dealer. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Section 922(a)(6) makes it an offense knowingly to make a false statement "in connection with the acquisition . . . of any firearm . . . from a . . . licensed dealer" and

intended or likely to deceive such . . . dealer . . . with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale or other disposition of such firearm. . . .

Held: Section 922(a)(6) applies to the redemption of a firearm from a pawnshop. Pp. 819-833.

(a) Petitioner's contention that the statute covers only a sale-like transaction is without merit, since "acquisition," as used in § 922(a)(6), clearly includes any person, by definition, who "comes into possession, control, or power of disposal" of a firearm. Moreover, the statutory terms "acquisition" and "sale or other disposition" are correlatives. It is reasonable to conclude that a pawnbroker might "dispose" of a firearm through a redemptive transaction. Finally, Congress explicitly included pawnbrokers in the Gun Control Act, specifically mentioned pledge and pawn transactions involving firearms, and did not include them in the statutory exemptions. Pp. 819-823.

(b) That pawnshop firearms redemptions are covered by the challenged provision comports with the legislative history of Title IV of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which are aimed at controlling access to weapons by those whose possession thereof is contrary to the public interest, through a regulatory scheme focusing on he federally licensed firearms dealer. Pp. 824-829.

(c) Section 922(a)(6) contains no ambiguity warranting a narrow construction in petitioner's favor, and application of the

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statute to the pawn redemptions here raises no issue of constitutional dimension. Pp. 830-833.

472 F.2d 592, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 833.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6),1 declaring that it is unlawful knowingly to make a false statement "in connection with the acquisition . . . of any firearm . . . from a . . . licensed dealer," covers the redemption of a firearm from a pawnshop.

On October 6, 1971, petitioner, William C. Huddleston, Jr., pawned his wife's Winchester 30-30-caliber rifle for $25 at a pawnshop in Oxnard, California. On the following October 15 and on December 28, he pawned at

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the same shop two other firearms, a Russian 7.62-caliber rifle and a Remington .22-caliber rifle, belonging to his wife. For these he received loans of $10 and $15, respectively. The owner of the pawnshop was a federally licensed firearms dealer.

Some [94 S.Ct. 1265] weeks later, on February 1, 1972, and on March 10, Huddleston redeemed the weapons. In connection with each of the redemptions, the pawnbroker required petitioner to complete Treasury Form 4473, entitled "Firearms Transaction Record." This is a form used in the enforcement of the gun control provision of Title IV of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, Pub.L. 90-351, 82 Stat. 225, as amended by the Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub.L. 90-618, 82 Stat. 1213, of which the above-cited 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) is a part. Question 8b of the form is:

Have you been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year? (Note: The actual sentence given by the judge does not matter -- a yes answer is necessary if the judge could have given a sentence of more than one year.)

The question is derived from the statutory prohibition against a dealer's selling or otherwise disposing of a firearm to any person who "has been convicted in any court of . . . a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(1).2 Petitioner answered "no" to Question 8b on each of the three

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Forms. 4473. He then affixed his signature to each form's certification that the answers were true and correct, that he understood that a person who answers any of the questions in the affirmative is prohibited by federal law from "purchasing and/or possessing a firearm," and that he also understood that the making of any false statement with respect to the transaction is a crime punishable as a felony.

In fact, Huddleston, six years earlier, had been convicted in a California state court for writing checks without sufficient funds, an offense punishable under California law by a maximum term of 14 years.3 This fact, if revealed to the pawnshop proprietor, would have precluded the proprietor from selling or otherwise disposing of any of the rifles to the petitioner because of the proscription in 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(1).

Huddleston was charged in a three-count indictment with violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(a)(6) and 924(a).4 He moved to dismiss the indictment, in part on the ground that § 922(a)(6) was never intended to apply, and should not apply, to a pawnor's redemption of a weapon he had pawned. This motion was denied. Petitioner then pleaded not guilty and waived a jury trial.

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The Government's evidence consisted primarily of the three Treasury Forms 4473 Huddleston had signed; the record of his earlier California felony conviction; and the pawnbroker's federal license. A Government agent also testified that petitioner, after being arrested and advised of his rights, made statements admitting that he had known, when filling out the forms, that he was a felon, and that he had lied each time [94 S.Ct. 1266] when he answered Question 8b in the negative.

Huddleston testified in his own defense. He stated that he did not knowingly make a false statement; that he did not read the form, and simply answered "no" upon prompting from the pawnbroker; and that he was unaware that his California conviction was punishable by a term exceeding one year.5

The District Judge found the petitioner guilty on all counts. He sentenced Huddleston to three concurrent three-year terms. The sentences were suspended, however, except for 20 days to be served on weekends. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, by a divided vote, affirmed the conviction. 472 F.2d 592 (1973). The dissenting judge agreed that the statute was constitutional as applied, but concluded that what Huddleston did was to "reacquire" the rifles, and that "reacquire" is not necessarily included within the statute's term "acquire." Id. at 593. We granted certiorari, 411 U.S. 930 (1973), to resolve an existing conflict among the circuits on the issue whether the

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prohibition against making false statements in connection with the acquisition of a firearm covers a firearm's redemption from a pawnshop.6


Petitioner's assault on the statute under which he was convicted is two-pronged. First, it is argued that both the statute's language and its legislative history indicate that Congress did not intend a pawnshop redemption of a firearm to be an "acquisition" covered by the statute. Second, it is said that, even if Congress did intend a pawnshop redemption to be a covered "acquisition," the statute is so ambiguous that its construction is controlled by the maxim that ambiguity in a criminal statute is to be resolved in favor of the defendant.

We turn first to the language and structure of the Act. Reduced to a minimum, § 922(a)(6) relates to any false statement made "in connection with the acquisition . . . of any firearm" from a licensed dealer and intended or likely to deceive the dealer "with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale or other disposition of such firearm."

Petitioner attaches great significance to the word "acquisition." He urges that it suggests only a sale-like transaction. Since Congress in § 922(a)(6) did not use words of transfer or delivery, as it did in other sections of the Act, he argues that "acquisition" must have a narrower meaning than those terms. Moreover, since a pawn transaction is only a temporary bailment of personal property, with the pawnshop having merely a security interest in the pledged property, title or ownership is constant in the pawnor, and the "pawn

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plus redemption" transaction is no more than an interruption in the pawnor's possession. The pawnor simply repossesses his own property, and he does not "acquire" any new title or interest in the object pawned. At most, he "reacquires" the object, and reacquisition, as the dissenting judge in the Court of Appeals noted, is not necessarily included in the statutory term "acquisition."

On its face, this argument might be said to have some force. A careful look at the statutory language and at complementary provisions of the Act, however, convinces us that the asserted ambiguity is contrived. Petitioner is mistaken in focusing solely on the [94 S.Ct. 1267] term "acquisition" and in enshrouding it with an extra-statutory "legal title" or "ownership" analysis. The...

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