445 U.S. 55 (1980), 78-1595, Lewis v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 78-1595
Citation:445 U.S. 55, 100 S.Ct. 915, 63 L.Ed.2d 198
Party Name:Lewis v. United States
Case Date:February 27, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 55

445 U.S. 55 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 915, 63 L.Ed.2d 198



United States

No. 78-1595

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 27, 1980

Argued January 7, 1980




Held: Even though petitioner's extant prior state court felony conviction may be subject to collateral attack under Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, it could properly be used as a predicate for his subsequent conviction for possession of a firearm in violation of § 1202(a)(1) of Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Pp. 60-68.

(a) The plain meaning of § 1202(a)(1)'s sweeping language proscribing the possession of firearms by any person who "has been convicted by a court of the United States or of a State . . . of a felony," is that the fact of a felony conviction imposes firearm disability until the conviction is vacated or the felon is relieved of his disability by some affirmative action. Other provisions of the statute demonstrate and reinforce its broad sweep, and there is nothing in § 1202(a)(1)'s legislative history to suggest that Congress was willing to allow a defendant to question the validity of his prior conviction as a defense to a charge under § 1202(a)(1). Moreover, the fact that there are remedies available to a convicted felon -- removal of the firearm disability by a qualifying pardon or the Secretary of the [100 S.Ct. 916] Treasury's consent, as specified in the Act, or a challenge to the prior conviction in an appropriate court proceeding -- suggests that Congress intended that the defendant clear his status before obtaining a firearm, thereby fulfilling Congress' purpose to keep firearms away from persons classified as potentially irresponsible and dangerous. Pp. 60-65.

(b) The firearm regulatory scheme at issue here is consonant with the concept of equal protection embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, since Congress could rationally conclude that any felony conviction, even an allegedly invalid one, is a sufficient basis on which to prohibit the possession of a firearm. And use of an uncounseled felony conviction as the basis for imposing a civil firearms disability, enforceable by criminal sanction, is not inconsistent with Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109; United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443; and Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473. Pp. 65-67.

591 F.2d 978, affirmed.

Page 56

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 68.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a defendant's extant prior conviction, flawed because he was without counsel, as required by Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), may constitute the predicate for a subsequent conviction under § 1202(a)(1), as amended, of Title II of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a)(1).1


In 1961, petitioner George Calvin Lewis, Jr., upon his plea of guilty, was convicted in a Florida state court of a felony

Page 57

for breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor. See Fla.Stat. § 810.05 (1961). He served a term of imprisonment. That conviction has never been overturned, nor has petitioner ever received a qualifying pardon or permission from the Secretary of the Treasury to possess a firearm. See 18 U.S.C.App. § 1203(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 925(c).

In January, 1977, Lewis, on probable cause, was arrested in Virginia, and later was charged by indictment with having knowingly received and possessed at that time a specified firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. App. § 1202(a)(1).2 He waived a jury and was given a bench trial. It was stipulated that the weapon in question had been shipped in interstate commerce. The Government introduced in evidence an exemplified [100 S.Ct. 917] copy of the judgment and sentence in the 1961 Florida felony proceeding. App. 10.

Shortly before the trial, petitioner's counsel informed the court that he had been advised that Lewis was not represented by counsel in the 1961 Florida proceeding.3 He claimed that, under Gideon v. Wainwright, supra, a violation of § 1202(a)(1)

Page 58

could not be predicated on a prior conviction obtained in violation of petitioner's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court rejected that claim, ruling that the constitutionality of the outstanding Florida conviction was immaterial with respect to petitioner's status under § 1202(a)(1) as a previously convicted felon at the time of his arrest. Petitioner, accordingly, offered no evidence as to whether, in fact, he had been convicted in 1961 without the aid of counsel. We therefore assume, for present purposes, that he was without counsel at that time.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, by a divided vote, affirmed. 591 F.2d 978 (1979). It held that a defendant, purely as a defense to a prosecution under 1292(a)(1), could not attack collaterally an outstanding prior felony conviction, and that the statutory prohibition applied irrespective of whether that prior conviction was subject to collateral attack. The Court of Appeals also rejected Lewis' constitutional argument to the effect that the use of the prior conviction as a predicate for his prosecution under § 1202(a)(1) violated his rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Because of conflict among the Courts of Appeals,4 we granted certiorari. 442 U.S. 939 (1979).

Page 59


Four cases decided by this Court provide the focus for petitioner's attack upon his conviction. The first and pivotal one is Gideon v. Wainwright, supra, where the Court held that a state felony conviction without counsel, and without a valid waiver of counsel, was unconstitutional under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. That ruling is fully retroactive. Kitchens v. Smith, 401 U.S. 847 (1971).

Page 60

The second case is Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109 (1967). There, the Court held that a conviction invalid under Gideon could not be used for enhancement of punishment under a State's recidivist statute. The third is United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443 (1972), where it was held that such a conviction could not be considered by a court in sentencing a defendant after a subsequent conviction. And the fourth is Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473 (1972), where the Court disallowed the use of the conviction to impeach the general credibility of the defendant. The prior conviction, the plurality opinion said, "lacked reliability." Id. at 484, quoting Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 639, and n. 20 (1965).

We, of course, accept these rulings for purposes of the present case. Petitioner's position, however, is that the four cases require a reversal of his conviction under § 1202(a)(1) on both statutory and constitutional grounds.


The Court has stated repeatedly of late that, in any case concerning the interpretation of a statute, the "starting point" must be the language of the statute itself. Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 337 (1979). See also Touche Ross & Co. v. Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 568 (1979); Southestern Community College v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397, 405 (1979). An examination of § 1202(a)(1) reveals that its proscription is directed unambiguously at any person who "has been convicted by a court of the United States or of a State . . . of a felony." No modifier is present, and nothing suggests any restriction on the scope of the term "convicted."

Nothing on the face of the statute suggests a congressional intent to limit its coverage to persons [whose convictions are not subject to collateral attack].

United States v. Culbert, 435 U.S. 371, 373 (1978); see United States v. Naftalin, 441 U.S. 768, 772 (1979). The statutory language is sweeping, and its plain meaning is that the fact of a felony conviction imposes a firearm disability until the conviction is vacated or the felon is

Page 61

relieved of his disability by some affirmative action, such as a qualifying pardon or a consent from the Secretary of the Treasury.5 The obvious breadth of the language may well [100 S.Ct. 919] reflect the expansive legislative approach revealed by Congress' express findings and declarations, in 18 U.S.C.App. § 1201,6 concerning the problem of firearm abuse by felons and certain specifically described persons.

Other provisions of the statute demonstrate and reinforce its broad sweep. Section 1203 enumerates exceptions to

Page 62

1202(a)(1) (a prison inmate who by reason of his duties has expressly been entrusted with a firearm by prison authority; a person who has been pardoned and who has expressly been authorized to receive, possess, or transport a firearm). In addition, § 1202(c)(2) defines "felony" to exclude certain state crimes punishable by no more than two years' imprisonment. No exception, however, is made for a person whose outstanding felony conviction ultimately might turn out to be invalid for any reason. On its face, therefore, § 1202(a)(1) contains nothing by way of restrictive language. It thus stands in contrast with other federal statutes that explicitly permit a defendant to challenge, by way of defense, the validity or constitutionality of the predicate felony. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3575(e) (dangerous special offender) and 21 U.S.C. § 851(c)(2) (recidivism under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970).

When we turn to the legislative history of § 1202(a)(1), we find nothing to suggest that Congress was willing to allow a defendant to question the validity of his prior...

To continue reading