Voisine v. United States

Citation195 L.Ed.2d 736,136 S.Ct. 2272
Decision Date27 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 14–10154.,14–10154.
Parties Stephen L. VOISINE and William E. Armstrong, III, Petitioners v. UNITED STATES.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Virginia G. Villa, appointed by the Court, St. Croix Falls, WI, for Petitioners.

Ilana H. Eisenstein, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Sarah M. Konsky, Brenna Woodley, Steven J. Horowitz, Jason G. Marsico, Sidley Austin LLP, Chicago, IL, Jeffrey T. Green, Sarah O'Rourke Schrup, Chicago, IL, Virginia G. Villa, St. Croix Falls, WI, for Petitioners.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Ilana H. Eisenstein, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Joseph C. Wyderko, Finnuala K. Tessier, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice KAGAN

delivered the opinion of the Court.

Federal law prohibits any person convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9)

. That phrase is defined to include any misdemeanor committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the "use ... of physical force." § 921(a)(33)(A). The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.


Congress enacted § 922(g)(9)

some 20 years ago to "close [a] dangerous loophole" in the gun control laws. United States v. Castleman, 572 U.S. ––––, ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1405, 1409, 188 L.Ed.2d 426 (2014) (quoting United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415, 426, 129 S.Ct. 1079, 172 L.Ed.2d 816 (2009) ). An existing provision already barred convicted felons from possessing firearms. See § 922(g)(1) (1994 ed.). But many perpetrators of domestic violence are charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies, notwithstanding the harmfulness of their conduct. See Castleman, 572 U.S., at ––––, 134 S.Ct., at 1408–1409. And "[f]irearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination." Hayes, 555 U.S., at 427, 129 S.Ct. 1079. Accordingly, Congress added § 922(g)(9) to prohibit any person convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" from possessing any gun or ammunition with a connection to interstate commerce. And it defined that phrase, in § 921(a)(33)(A), to include a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship with the victim, that "has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force."

Two Terms ago, this Court considered the scope of that definition in a case involving a conviction for a knowing or intentional assault. See

Castleman, 572 U.S., at –––– – ––––, 134 S.Ct., at 1409–1415

. In Castleman , we initially held that the word "force" in § 921(a)(33)(A) bears its common-law meaning, and so is broad enough to include offensive touching. See id., at ––––, 134 S.Ct., at 1409–1410. We then determined that "the knowing or intentional application of [such] force is a ‘use’ of force." Id., at ––––, 134 S.Ct., at 1415. But we expressly left open whether a reckless assault also qualifies as a "use" of force—so that a misdemeanor conviction for such conduct would trigger § 922(g)(9)'s firearms ban. See id., at ––––, n. 8, 134 S.Ct., at 1413–1414, n. 8. The two cases before us now raise that issue.

Petitioner Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty in 2004 to assaulting his girlfriend in violation of § 207 of the Maine Criminal Code, which makes it a misdemeanor to "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause[ ] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person." Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, § 207(1)(A)

. Several years later, Voisine again found himself in legal trouble, this time for killing a bald eagle. See 16 U.S.C. § 668(a). While investigating that crime, law enforcement officers learned that Voisine owned a rifle. When a background check turned up his prior misdemeanor conviction, the Government charged him with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).1

Petitioner William Armstrong pleaded guilty in 2008 to assaulting his wife in violation of a Maine domestic violence law making it a misdemeanor to commit an assault prohibited by § 207

(the general statute under which Voisine was convicted) against a family or household member. See Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, § 207–A(1)(A). A few years later, law enforcement officers searched Armstrong's home as part of a narcotics investigation. They discovered six guns, plus a large quantity of ammunition. Like Voisine, Armstrong was charged under § 922(g)(9) for unlawfully possessing firearms.

Both men argued that they were not subject to § 922(g)(9)

's prohibition because their prior convictions (as the Government conceded) could have been based on reckless, rather than knowing or intentional, conduct. The District Court rejected those claims. Each petitioner then entered a guilty plea conditioned on the right to appeal the District Court's ruling.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the two convictions, holding that "an offense with a mens rea of recklessness may qualify as a ‘misdemeanor crime of violence’ under § 922(g)(9)

." United States v. Armstrong, 706 F.3d 1, 4 (2013) ; see United States v. Voisine, 495 Fed.Appx. 101, 102 (2013) (per curiam ). Voisine and Armstrong filed a joint petition for certiorari, and shortly after issuing Castleman , this Court (without opinion) vacated the First Circuit's judgments and remanded the cases for further consideration in light of that decision. See Armstrong v. United States, 572 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1759, 188 L.Ed.2d 590 (2014). On remand, the Court of Appeals again upheld the convictions, on the same ground. See 778 F.3d 176, 177 (2015).

We granted certiorari, 577 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 386, 193 L.Ed.2d 309 (2015)

, to resolve a Circuit split over whether a misdemeanor conviction for recklessly assaulting a domestic relation disqualifies an individual from possessing a gun under § 922(g)(9)

.2 We now affirm.


The issue before us is whether § 922(g)(9)

applies to reckless assaults, as it does to knowing or intentional ones. To commit an assault recklessly is to take that action with a certain state of mind (or mens rea )—in the dominant formulation, to "consciously disregard[ ]" a substantial risk that the conduct will cause harm to another. ALI, Model Penal Code § 2.02(2)(c) (1962); Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, § 35(3) (Supp. 2015) (adopting that definition); see Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 836–837, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994) (noting that a person acts recklessly only when he disregards a substantial risk of harm "of which he is aware"). For purposes of comparison, to commit an assault knowingly or intentionally (the latter, to add yet another adverb, sometimes called "purposefully") is to act with another state of mind respecting that act's consequences—in the first case, to be "aware that [harm] is practically certain" and, in the second, to have that result as a "conscious object." Model Penal Code §§ 2.02(2)(a)-(b) ; Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, §§ 35(1)-(2).

Statutory text and background alike lead us to conclude that a reckless domestic assault qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" under § 922(g)(9)

. Congress defined that phrase to include crimes that necessarily involve the "use ... of physical force." § 921(a)(33)(A). Reckless assaults, no less than the knowing or intentional ones we addressed in Castleman , satisfy that definition. Further, Congress enacted § 922(g)(9) in order to prohibit domestic abusers convicted under run-of-the-mill misdemeanor assault and battery laws from possessing guns. Because fully two-thirds of such state laws extend to recklessness, construing § 922(g)(9) to exclude crimes committed with that state of mind would substantially undermine the provision's design.


Nothing in the word "use"—which is the only statutory language either party thinks relevant—indicates that § 922(g)(9)

applies exclusively to knowing or intentional domestic assaults. Recall that under § 921(a)(33)(A), an offense counts as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" only if it has, as an element, the "use" of force. Dictionaries consistently define the noun "use" to mean the "act of employing" something. Webster's New International Dictionary 2806 (2d ed. 1954) ("[a]ct of employing anything"); Random House Dictionary of the English Language 2097 (2d ed. 1987) ("act of employing, using, or putting into service"); Black's Law Dictionary 1541 (6th ed. 1990) ("[a]ct of employing," "application").3 On that common understanding, the force involved in a qualifying assault must be volitional; an involuntary motion, even a powerful one, is not naturally described as an active employment of force. See Castleman, 572 U.S., at ––––, 134 S.Ct., at 1415

("[T]he word ‘use’ conveys the idea that the thing used (here, ‘physical force’) has been made the user's instrument" (some internal quotation marks omitted)). But the word "use" does not demand that the person applying force have the purpose or practical certainty that it will cause harm, as compared with the understanding that it is substantially likely to do so. Or, otherwise said, that word is indifferent as to whether the actor has the mental state of intention, knowledge, or recklessness with respect to the harmful consequences of his volitional conduct.

Consider a couple of examples to see the ordinary meaning of the word "use" in this context. If a person with soapy hands loses his grip on a plate, which then shatters and cuts his wife, the person has not "use[d]" physical force in common parlance. But now suppose a person throws a plate in anger against the wall near where his wife is standing. That hurl counts as a "use" of force even if the husband did not know for certain (or have as an object), but only recognized a substantial risk, that a shard from the plate would ricochet...

To continue reading

Request your trial
291 cases
  • United States v. West, Criminal Case No. 04-93 (RJL)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • July 13, 2018
    ...of another’ within the meaning of ACCA." Id. at 1280. Relying on the Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Voisine v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 2272, 195 L.Ed.2d 736, which held that reckless assaults qualify as "the use or attempted use of physical force" under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)......
  • United States v. Webb, CRIMINAL ACTION NOS. 01-10267-WGY
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • November 9, 2016
    ......It is true that Fish 's expansion of the reach of Leocal to include recklessness appears to work independently from the specifics of the Section 16 residual clause. A recent Supreme Court decision, postdating Fields , however, at the very least tamps down this inference. In Voisine v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 2272, 195 L.Ed.2d 736 (2016), the Supreme Court ruled that misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence convictions for reckless conduct involve the use of physical force. Id. at 2276. This conclusion relied on both statutory interpretation ......
  • United States v. DeFrance
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Montana)
    • December 29, 2021
    ...United States v. Nobriga , 474 F.3d 561, 563–64 (9th Cir. 2006), abrogated on other grounds by Voisine v. United States , 579 U.S. 686, 136 S. Ct. 2272, 195 L.Ed.2d 736 (2016) ; see also Hayes , 555 U.S. at 418, 129 S.Ct. 1079. There is no basis in the text of the statute or legislative his......
  • United States v. Báez-Martínez
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • February 11, 2020
    ...). Despite this approach having been marked as not yet finally resolved by the Supreme Court, see Voisine v. United States, ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 2272, 2279, 195 L.Ed.2d 736 (2016) ("[N]othing in Leocal ... suggests ... that ‘use’ marks a dividing line between reckless and knowing condu......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 books & journal articles
  • Passive Avoidance.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 71 No. 3, March 2019
    • March 1, 2019
    ...nine concurring or dissenting opinions--six authored by Justice Thomas--also invoked the avoidance canon. See Voisine v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2272, 2290-92 (2016) (Thomas, J., dissenting); Taylor v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2074, 2082-85 (2016) (Thomas, J., dissenting); Ariz. State Le......
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 170 No. 3, February 2022
    • February 1, 2022
    ...(2016); Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 136 S. Ct. 1863 (2016); Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016); Voisine v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2272 (2016); Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017); Dean v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1170 (2017); United States v. Stitt, 139 S. Ct.......
  • The Future of Administrative Law
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter No. 47-3, March 2017
    • March 1, 2017
    ...interest to scholars, and I am imagin- as follows: “he judgment is airmed by an equally divided Court.” United States v. Texas , 136 S. Ct. at 2272. 8. he “clean power” case refers to the consolidated set of actions challenging EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule. See Carbon Pollution Emission Guid......
    • United States
    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 94 No. 1, November 2018
    • November 1, 2018
    ...or when rendering a decision. The decision in whole stated that: "The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court." Texas, 136 S. Ct. at 2272 (per (16) Texas, 809 F.3d at 148, 174 n.138. (17) U.S. CONST. art. II, [section] 3. (18) There are additional concerns that Congress will contin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT