U.S. Supreme Court Cites the Model Penal Code
The U.S. Supreme Court recently cited Model Penal Code §§ 2.02 and 2.04 in determining that, to convict a defendant of possessing a firearm as an alien unlawfully in the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the government had to prove that the defendant knew of his status as a person barred from possessing a firearm.
In Rehaif v. United States, No. 17−9560 (June 21, 2019), a foreign citizen who had entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa in order to attend university failed to leave the country or transfer to another school after the university terminated his enrollment due to poor grades; he subsequently visited a firing range, where he shot two firearms. The government prosecuted the defendant under § 922(g), which prohibited aliens who were in the country illegally from possessing firearms, and § 924(a)(2), which provided that anyone who knowingly violated § 922(g) would be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. After a jury returned a guilty verdict, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida sentenced the defendant to 18 months’ imprisonment, and the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that the government was not required to prove that the defendant knew that he was illegally or unlawfully in the United States, only that he knew that he possessed a firearm.
Reversing, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, in a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the government had to prove both that the defendant knew that he possessed a firearm and that he knew that he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, reasoned, in part, that the statutory text supported “the longstanding presumption, traceable to the common law,” in favor of requiring the government to prove scienter in order to convict a defendant under a criminal statute. The Court explained that, under Model Penal Code § 2.02(4), the presumption applied with equal or greater force when, as here, Congress included a general scienter provision in the statute itself.
Justice Breyer rejected the government’s argument that whether an alien was illegally or unlawfully in the United States was a question of law, rather than fact, and that “ignorance of the law” (or a “mistake of law”) was no excuse. The Court reasoned that, while a mistake of law did not constitute a defense when a defendant had “the requisite mental state with respect to the elements of the crime but claim[ed] to be ‘unaware of the existence of a statute proscribing such conduct,’” it could potentially constitute a defense when a defendant had “a mistaken impression concerning the legal effect of some collateral matter and that mistake result[ed] in his misunderstanding the full significance of his conduct.’” Justice Breyer explained that, under Model Penal Code § 2.04, a mistake of law was a defense if the mistake negated the knowledge required to establish a material element of the offense, and, in this case, the defendant’s knowledge of his status as an illegal alien was a material element of the offense.
Read the full opinion here.
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