Supreme Court holds Criminal Intent is Relevant: “There can be no crime large or small, without an evil mind.” – Joel Prentiss Bishop
Must the government prove that we know what we are doing is wrong before we are punished for it? That was a question posed to the United States Supreme Court this term and the Justices answered it with an affirmative yes. This is a win for liberty and justice. It reaffirms that basic principal that “[t]here can be no crime large or small, without an evil mind.”
In Rehaif v. United States the Supreme Court held in order to be prosecuted for illegal possession of a firearm the government must show you knew it was illegal for you to possess the firearm.
Federal law prohibits possession of a firearm by any person who fits into one of nine categories: (1) convicted felons; (2) fugitives from justice; (3) users of illegal drugs or addicts; (4) persons found to have very serious mental problems; (5) illegal aliens; (6) individuals dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces; (7) persons who renounced U.S. citizenship; (8) stalkers, harassers, and abusers subject to restraining orders; and (9) persons convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
Remarkably, in the United States before the Rehaif decision you could be convicted of illegal possession even when you had no idea you belonged in any one of these categories. All the government had to prove was the person possessed the firearm, even for a second.
This case reminds your author of a situation I faced several years ago. I had a client show up to my office that was charged under this federal law. As a young man, in the mid-1980’s, he found himself on the wrong side of the law.
He pled guilty to a felony, but he was assured by both the judge and his attorney that if he stayed out of trouble and did some community service his record would be expunged. The slate for him would be wiped clean. It would be as if this mistake never happened.
Decades went by and my client became an avid sportsman. He owns an impressive array of firearms for hunting, target shooting and the protection of his family. One day, while target shooting at his local range he received a visit from the FBI. They let him know he illegally possessed his firearms because he was a felon. How could that be? A judge and his former attorney said his felony would be expunged.
It turns out for one reason or another, the expungement never happened and the felony remained on his record. He didn’t know he was still technically considered a “felon” but none the less he was charged. Despite his belief to the contrary, there was no defense for this charge. The government did not have to prove he knew he was not eligible to possess the firearms. This led to a travesty of justice and a truly innocent man losing his liberty and his rights.
Finally, the Supreme Court changed this travesty and advanced the basic principle of criminal law to separate those who know their act is wrong from those who do not. We punish the former but not the latter.
About the Author: Richard S. Roberts, Jr. is an experienced trial attorney who practiced criminal law for 6 years before coming to Zator Law. He has argued and litigated criminal appeals in both the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts. He is a passionate, experienced frequent seminar speaker on various topics surrounding the civil rights of individuals including a recent seminar on Legally Justified Use of Deadly Force and Interactions with law enforcement.