US Supreme Court issues ruling on domestic violence weapons ban

The United States Supreme Court ruled late last month that a 1996 law prohibiting people who have been convicted of domestic violence may not later possess a firearm, regardless of whether the underlying case included evidence of actual physical harm. At least two federal appellate rulings had previously held that some level of actual violence should be required in federal weapons charges related to a prior misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from state courts.

The case made it up to the high court after prosecutors appealed the decisions of a trial judge and an appellate panel. Federal prosecutors charged a man with a federal weapons offense for unlawful possession of firearms based upon a 2001 misdemeanor conviction in a Tennessee state court. His criminal defense argued to have the indictment dismissed because the underlying conviction did not include evidence of “the use or attempted use of physical force,” according to the Supreme Court. A federal appellate court agreed, and the ruling was upheld by an appellate panel.

The nation’s highest court ruled unanimously to reverse the lower court rulings. Justice Sonia Sotomayor says that Congress intended the ban to include misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, even if the case involves allegations that are relatively minor — possibly involving a slap, or other conduct that is not commonly recognized in nondomestic situations as the use of substantial force.

She says that Congress intended the firearm ban to apply to these cases and the use of the term “violence” should not be read separately from the use of the word “domestic.” She says that “domestic violence” is a term of art and should be understood under its meaning as a term of art.

The court ruling did not address any issues involving the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Criminal appeals serve an important role in our justice system. Some cases may result in a clarification of the law that has been used improperly in bringing charges; other criminal appeals are intended to reverse a wrongful conviction. A lot is at stake in a criminal appeal, especially in federal court. Often, it may be beneficial for a person to seek new counsel to handle an appeal. A new lawyer can look at issues in the process with a new set of eyes.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court keeps guns away from those guilty of domestic violence,” David G. Savage, March 26, 2014; U.S. Supreme Court, “United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371,” March 26, 2014