Rehaif v US Defines “Knowingly” Under Federal Law

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Rehaif v US Defines “Knowingly” Under Federal Law

Under federal law, it is illegal for certain individuals to possess firearms. Federal law also provides for up to 10 years in prison for anyone who “knowingly” violates that provision. But what does “knowingly” mean in this context? Does it mean that the person must have known that they fell into the category of certain individuals? Or does it mean that they must have known that they possessed the firearm? Or does it mean both? The U.S. Supreme Court answered those questions in Rehaif v United States.

Factual and Procedural Background

Hamid Rehaif entered the United States on a student visa. But his university eventually dismissed him. When they did, the school warned him about his immigration status. School officials said it would terminate if he didn’t transfer to a different university or leave the U.S. Rehaif chose neither option.

Shortly thereafter, however, the government learned that Rehaif visiting a shooting range and used a firearm there. Based on this instance of target practice, the government charged him with illegally possessing a firearm as an unlawful alien.

In doing so, the government relied on two statutory provisions. First, the government relied on 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). That statutory provision makes it unlawful for anyone who “is illegally or unlawfully in the United States” to possess a firearm. Second, the government relied on 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). That statutory provision allows a court to sentence someone who “knowingly” violates the first provision to up to 10 years in prison.

Image courtesy of Vladimir Cetinski via Getty Images.

The parties disputed whether the government needed to prove that Rehaif “knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States.”

At Rehaif’s trial, a dispute arose over how the court should instruct the jury. Over Rehaif’s objection, it instructed the jury that the government was not required to prove knowledge. So, the government didn’t need to prove that Rehaif “knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States.”

The jury convicted Rehaif, and he appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, he challenged the court’s jury instruction that said that the government was not required to prove that Rehaif “knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” According to Rehaif, that instruction did not accurately reflect 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2)’s requirement that he “knowingly” violate the other provision. The 11th Circuit disagreed, and Rehaif took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue before the Supreme Court was relatively narrow: “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 his firearm.”

According to the Supreme Court, the answer to that question is yes.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer began by recognizing that the interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) came down to congressional intent. Stated differently, the court needed to understand what Congress intended when it passed the statute. That intent, the Supreme Court said, supported Rehaif’s argument.

The Supreme Court explained that “by specifying that a defendant may be convicted only if he ‘knowingly violates’ § 922(g), Congress intended to require the Government establish that the defendant knew he violated the material elements of § 922(g).” Accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court held “that the word ‘knowingly’ applies both to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status.”

The Supreme Court concluded as follows: “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.”

Rehaif image Supreme Court
Image courtesy of tsvibrav via Getty Images.

Two justices, Alito and Thomas, disagreed in a dramatic fashion.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas, strongly dissented. He began by claiming that § 922(g) “probably does more to combat gun violence than any other federal law.”

According to him, the majority decision would make convictions under the statute harder and “create a mountain of problems with respect to thousands of prisoners currently serving terms for § 922(g) convictions.”

In support of their view, Justice Alito then discussed Rehaif’s grades, his frequenting of a hotel and several other characteristics. While these issues are tangentially related to Rehaif’s immigration status, it is unclear what value they have, if any, to the “knowingly” determination.

In any event, once Justice Alito got to the statutory text, he seemingly asserted that it wasn’t clear what the legislature intended by its use of the word “knowingly” in the statute. Among other things, he stated that “the statutory text alone does not tell us with any degree of certainty the particular elements of § 922(g) to which the term ‘knowingly’ applies.” Because there was no suggestion that Congress intended that a defendant know their own status, he reasoned, the prosecution must only show that a defendant knowingly possessed a firearm.

More than anything, Justice Alito repeatedly emphasized how much litigation the majority decision might create. It’s hard to imagine that such a speculative fear would warrant ignoring a statute’s knowledge requirement. But the dissent makes it clear that this fear was definitely on at least two of the justices’ minds. “The majority today opens the gates to a flood of litigation that is sure to burden the lower courts with claims for relief in a host of cases where there is no basis for doubting the defendant’s knowledge,” Justice Alito warned in his conclusion.

What Rehaif v United States Means for the Future

The Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif v United States might be viewed as unremarkable. A statute made it a crime for someone to knowingly possess a firearm while unlawfully in the U.S. (as well as in several other situations). The Supreme Court held that you had to know you were unlawfully in the U.S. as part of that crime. To many observers, that conclusion might sound self-evident.

But Justice Alito’s dissent shows why the Supreme Court’s decision is anything but unremarkable. According to him, there have been “thousands of cases for more than 30 years” where criminal defendants may have been convicted for “knowingly” possessing a firearm in an illegal fashion when they did not, in fact, know that their possession was illegal.

But if the majority is correct when it comes to what “knowingly” means (which, as the highest court in our country, they are, for all applicable purposes), those people shouldn’t have to sit in prison for lengthy terms simply to avoid what Justice Alito described as “a flood of litigation.”

When it comes to fairness in sentencing and governmental accountability, our criminal justice system can do better than that.

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