524 U.S. 184 (1998), 96-8422, Bryan v. United States

Docket Nº:Case No. 96-8422
Citation:524 U.S. 184, 118 S.Ct. 1939, 141 L.Ed.2d 197, 66 U.S.L.W. 4475
Case Date:June 15, 1998
Court:United States Supreme Court

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524 U.S. 184 (1998)

118 S.Ct. 1939, 141 L.Ed.2d 197, 66 U.S.L.W. 4475




Case No. 96-8422

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1998

Argued March 31, 1998



The Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA) added 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) (1)(D) to the Criminal Code to prohibit anyone fro "willfully" violating, inter alia, § 922(a)(1)(A), which forbids dealing in firearms without a federal license. The evidence at petitioner's unlicensed dealing trial was adequate to prove that he was dealing in firearms and that he knew his conduct was unlawful, but there was no evidence that he was aware of the federal licensing requirement. The trial judge refused to instruct the jury that he could be convicted only if he knew of the federal licensing requirement, instructing, instead, that a person acts "willfully" if he acts with the bad purpose to disobey or disregard the law, but that he need not be aware of the specific law that his conduct may be violating. The jury found petitioner guilty. The Second Circuit affirmed, concluding that the instructions were proper and that the Government had elicited "ample proof" that petitioner had acted willfully.


The term "willfully" in § 924(a)(1)(D) requires proof only that the defendant knew his conduct was unlawful, not that he also knew of the federal licensing requirement. Pp. 191-200.

(a) When used in the criminal context, a "willful" act is generally one undertaken with a "bad purpose." See, e. g., Heikkinen v. United States, 355 U.S. 273, 279. In other words, to establish a "willful" violation of a statute, the Government must prove that the defendant acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful. Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135, 137. The Court rejects petitioner's argument that, for two principal reasons, a more particularized showing is required here. His first contention—that the "knowingly" requirement in §§ 924(a)(1)(A)-(C) for three categories of acts made unlawful by § 922 demonstrates that the Government must prove knowledge of the law—is not persuasive because "knowingly" refers to knowledge of the facts constituting the offense, as distinguished from knowledge of the law, see, e. g., United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 408. With respect to the three § 924 "knowingly" categories, the background presumption that every citizen knows the law makes it unnecessary to adduce specific evidence to prove an evil-meaning mind. As regards the "willfully" category here at issue, however, the jury must find that the defendant acted with such a mind, i. e., with knowledge that his

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conduct was unlawful. Also rejected is petitioner's second argument: that § 924(a)(1)(D) must be read to require knowledge of the law in light of this Court's adoption of a similar interpretation in cases concerned with willful violations of the tax laws, see, e. g., Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201, and the willful structuring of cash transactions to avoid a bank reporting requirement, see Ratzlaf, 510 U.S., at 138, 149. Those cases are readily distinguishable because they involved highly technical statutes that threatened to ensnare individuals engaged in apparently innocent conduct. That danger is not present here because the jury found that this petitioner knew that his conduct was unlawful. Pp. 191-196.

(b) Petitioner's additional arguments based on his reading of congressional intent are rejected. FOPA's legislative history is too ambiguous to offer him much assistance, since his main support lies in statements made by opponents of the bill. See, e. g., Schwegmann Brothers v. Calvert Distillers Corp., 341 U.S. 384, 394. His next argument— that, at the time FOPA was passed, the "willfulness" requirements in §§ 923(d)(1)(C)-(D) had uniformly been interpreted to require knowledge of the law—is inaccurate because a number of courts had reached different conclusions. Moreover, the cases adopting petitioner's view support the notion that disregard of a known legal obligation is sufficient to establish a willful violation, but in no way make it necessary. Petitioner's final argument—that § 922(b)(3), which is governed by § 924(a)(1)(D), indicates that Congress intended "willfully" to include knowledge of the law—fails for a similar reason. Pp. 196-199.

(c) The trial court's misstatement of law in a jury instruction given after the correct instructions were given—specifically, a sentence asserting that "the government [need not] prove that [petitioner] had knowledge that he was breaking the law"—does not provide a basis for reversal because (1) petitioner did not effectively object to that sentence; (2) in the context of the entire instructions, it seems unlikely that the jury was misled; (3) petitioner failed to raise this argument in the Second Circuit; and (4) this Court's grant of certiorari was limited to the narrow legal question hereinbefore decided. Pp. 199-200.

122 F.3d 90, affirmed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 200. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Ginsburg, J., joined, post, p. 200.

Roger Bennet Adler argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Martin B. Adelman.

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Kent L. Jones argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and John F. De Pue. [*]

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court. Petitioner was convicted of "willfully" dealing in firearms without a federal license. The question presented is whether the term "willfully" in 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(1)(D) requires proof that the defendant knew that his conduct was unlawful, or whether it also requires proof that he knew of the federal licensing requirement.


In 1968 Congress enacted the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. 82 Stat. 197-239. In Title IV of that Act Congress made findings concerning the impact of the traffic in firearms on the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States[1] and amended the Criminal Code

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to include detailed provisions regulating the use and sale of firearms. As amended, 18 U.S.C. § 922 defined a number of "unlawful acts"; subsection (a)(1) made it unlawful for any person except a licensed dealer to engage in the business of dealing in firearms.[2] Section 923 established the federal licensing program and repeated the prohibition against dealing in firearms without a license, and§ 924 specified the penalties for violating "any provision of this chapter." Read literally, § 924 authorized the imposition of a fine of up to $5,000 or a prison sentence of not more than five years, "or both," on any person who dealt in firearms without a license even if that person believed that he or she was acting lawfully.[3] As enacted in 1968, §§ 922(a)(1) and 924 omitted an express scienter requirement and therefore arguably imposed strict criminal liability on every unlicensed dealer in firearms. The 1968 Act also omitted any definition of the term "engaged in the business" even though that conduct was an element of the unlawful act prohibited by § 922(a)(1).

In 1986 Congress enacted the Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA), in part, to cure these omissions. The findings in that statute explained that additional legislation was necessary to protect law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms for lawful purposes.[4]

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FOPA therefore amended § 921 to include a definition of the term "engaged in the business,"[5] and amended§ 924 to add a scienter requirement as a condition to the imposition of penalties for most of the unlawful acts defined in§ 922. For three categories of offenses the intent required is that the defendant acted "knowingly"; for the fourth category, which includes "any other provision of this chapter," the required intent is that the defendant acted "willfully."[6]

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The § 922(a)(1)(A)[7] offense at issue in this case is an "other provision" in the "willfully" category.


The jury having found petitioner guilty, we accept the Government's version of the evidence. That evidence proved that petitioner did not have a federal license to deal in firearms; that he used so-called "straw purchasers" in Ohio to acquire pistols that he could not have purchased himself; that the straw purchasers made false statements when purchasing the guns; that petitioner assured the straw purchasers that he would file the serial numbers off the guns; and that he resold the guns on Brooklyn street corners known for drug dealing. The evidence was unquestionably adequate to prove that petitioner was dealing in firearms, and that he knew that his conduct was unlawful.[8] There was, however, no evidence that he was aware of the federal law that prohibits dealing in firearms without a federal license.

Petitioner was charged with a conspiracy to violate 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A), by willfully engaging in the business of dealing in firearms, and with a substantive violation of that provision.[9] After the close of evidence, petitioner requested that the trial judge instruct the jury that petitioner could be convicted only if he knew of the federal

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licensing requirement,[10] but the judge rejected this request. Instead, the trial judge gave this explanation of the term "willfully":

"A person acts willfully if he acts intentionally and purposely and with the intent to do something the law forbids, that is, with the bad purpose to disobey or to...

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