Ali Rehaif v. United States, 062119 FEDSC, 17-9560

Docket Nº:17-9560
Opinion Judge:BREYER, JUSTICE
Party Name:HAMID MOHAMED AHMED ALI REHAIF, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES
Judge Panel:BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined. ALITO, J., dissenting Justice Alito, with whom Justice Thomas joins, dissenting.
Case Date:June 21, 2019
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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588 U.S. ____ (2019)

HAMID MOHAMED AHMED ALI REHAIF, PETITIONER

v.

UNITED STATES

No. 17-9560

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 2019

Argued April 23, 2019

ON WRITE OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT No. 17-9560. Petitioner Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot two firearms at a firing range. The Government prosecuted him under 18 U.S.C. §922(g), which makes it unlawful for certain persons, including aliens illegally in the country, to possess firearms, and §924(a)(2), which provides that anyone who "knowingly violates" the first provision can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The jury at Rehaif s trial was instructed that the Government was not required to prove that he knew that he was unlawfully in the country. It returned a guilty verdict. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Held:

In a prosecution under §922(g) and §924(a)(2), the Government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. Pp. 3-12.

(a) Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. This inquiry starts from a longstanding presumption that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding "each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct," United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc., 513 U.S. 64, 72, normally characterized as a presumption in favor of "scienter." There is no convincing reason to depart from this presumption here.

The statutory text supports the presumption. It specifies that a defendant commits a crime if he "knowingly" violates §922(g), which makes possession of a firearm unlawful when the following elements are satisfied: (1) a status element (here "being an alien . . . illegally or unlawfully in the United States"); (2) a possession element (to "pos- sess"); (3) a jurisdictional element ("in or affecting commerce"); and (4) a firearm element (a "firearm or ammunition"). Aside from the jurisdictional element, which is not subject to the presumption in favor of scienter, §922(g)'s text simply lists the elements that make a defendant's behavior criminal. The term "knowingly" is normally read "as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime." Flores-Figueroa v. United States, 556 U.S. 646, 650. And the "knowingly" requirement clearly applies to §922(g)'s possession element, which follows the status element in the statutory text. There is no basis for interpreting "knowingly" as applying to the second §922 (g) element but not the first.

This reading of the statute is also consistent with a basic principle underlying the criminal law: the importance of showing what Black-stone called "a vicious will." Scienter requirements advance this principle by helping to separate wrongful from innocent acts. That is the case here. Possessing a gun can be entirely innocent. It is the defendant's status, not his conduct alone, that makes the difference. Without knowledge of that status, a defendant may lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. Pp. 3-7.

(b) The Government's arguments to the contrary are unpersuasive. In claiming that Congress does not normally require defendants to know their own status, it points to statutes where the defendant's status is the "crucial element" separating innocent from wrongful conduct. X-Citement Video, supra, at 73. Those statutes are quite different from the provisions at issue here, where the defendant's status separates innocent from wrongful conduct. The Government also argues that whether an alien is "illegally or unlawfully in the United States" is a question of law, not fact, and thus appeals to the maxim that "ignorance of the law" is no excuse. But that maxim normally applies where a defendant possesses the requisite mental state in respect to the elements of the crime but claims to be unaware of a law forbidding his conduct. That maxim does not normally apply where a defendant's mistaken impression about a collateral legal question causes him to misunderstand his conduct's significance, thereby negating an element of the offense. Rehaifs status as an alien "illegally or unlawfully in the United States" refers to what commentators call a "collateral" question of law, and a mistake regarding that status negates an element of the offense. Finally, the statutory and legislative history on which the Government relies is at best inclusive. Pp. 7-11.

888 F.3d 1138, reversed and remanded.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

OPINION

BREYER, JUSTICE

A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §922(g), provides that "[i]t shall be unlawful" for certain individuals to possess firearms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are "illegally or unlawfully in the United States." Ibid. A separate provision, §924(a)(2), adds that anyone who "knowingly violates" the first provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

The question here concerns the scope of the word "knowingly." Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)? We hold that the word "knowingly" applies both to the defendant's conduct and to the defendant's status. To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.

I

Petitioner Hamid Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university. After he received poor grades, the university dismissed him and told him that his "'immigration status'" would be terminated unless he transferred to a different university or left the country. App. to Pet. for Cert. 3a. Rehaif did neither.

Rehaif subsequently visited a firing range, where he shot two firearms. The Government learned about his target practice and prosecuted him for possessing firearms as an alien unlawfully in the United States, in violation of §922(g) and §924(a)(2). At the close of Rehaif's trial, the judge instructed the jury (over Rehaif's objection) that the "United States is not required to prove" that Rehaif "knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States." App. to Pet. for Cert. 4a (internal quotation marks omitted). The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Rehaif was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment.

Rehaif appealed. He argued that the judge erred in instructing the jury that it did not need to find that he knew he was in the country unlawfully. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, however, concluded that the jury instruction was correct, and it affirmed Rehaif's conviction. See 888 F.3d 1138, 1148 (2018). The Court of Appeals believed that the criminal law generally does not require a defendant to know his own status, and further observed that no court of appeals had required the Government to establish a defendant's knowledge of his status in the analogous context of felon-in-possession prosecutions. Id., at 1145-1146.

We granted certiorari to consider whether, in prosecutions under §922(g) and §924(a)(2), the Government must prove that a defendant knows of his status as a person barred from possessing a firearm. We now reverse.

II

Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. See Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 605 (1994). In determining Congress' intent, we start from a longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law, that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding "each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct." United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc., 513 U.S. 64, 72 (1994); see also Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 256-258 (1952). We normally characterize this interpretive maxim as a presumption in favor of "scienter," by which we mean a presumption that criminal statutes require the degree of knowledge sufficient to "mak[e] a person legally responsible for the consequences of his or her act or omission." Black's Law Dictionary 1547 (10th ed. 2014).

We apply the presumption in favor of scienter...

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