Rehaif v. United States: Once Again, A Gun Case Makes Surprising Law
32 Fed. Sent’g Rep. 23 (2019)
9 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2019
Date Written: October 17, 2019
Gun cases often make surprising law, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2019 decision in Rehaif v. United States is no exception. Rehaif involved a defendant convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which makes it a crime for certain persons to possess a firearm or ammunition in or affecting interstate commerce. For decades, there was judicial consensus that the statute did not require proof that defendants were aware of the status that caused them to fall within the statute’s purview. Nevertheless, in Rehaif, a divided Supreme Court held that the government must prove a defendant’s knowledge of such status to prevail in a Section 922(g) prosecution. Given the number of Section 922(g) cases brought each year, Rehaif is a highly consequential decision, even if limited to its immediate context. But it is also surprising for a variety of reasons. Not only did the Supreme Court hear the case in the absence of a circuit split, but the alignment of the Justices was also unusual. Most importantly, in a first for the Court, the opinion relied on the Model Penal Code’s default rules of statutory interpretation to hold that a statutorily prescribed mens rea term applied to all material elements of the offense. Whether Rehaif signals a stealth mens rea revolution of broader scope remains to be seen, but in any event the opinion is a fascinating study in statutory interpretation that seems destined for law school textbooks.
Keywords: Rehaif; Section 922(g); felon-in-possession of firearm; mens rea; Model Penal Code; statutory interpretation; scienter; collateral question of law
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