WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-2 that defendants convicted of domestic violence assault due to reckless conduct are subject to the same gun possession ban as those whose conduct was intentional.
The case upheld the convictions in federal court of two Maine men for possessing guns after being found guilty of the misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence assault in state court.
Justices considered the question: “Does a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualify as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence’ as defined by [federal law]?”
Mens reas is the legal term for intent.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts answered, “Yes.”
“In sum, Congress’s definition of a ‘misdemeanor crime of violence’ contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior. A person who assaults another recklessly ‘use[s]’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally,” Kagan wrote for the majority.
A reckless assault could range from slapping or pushing a family member or domestic partner to tossing one of them the remote control, which hits the person who failed to catch it, according to the men’s attorney Virginia Villa. For a domestic violence assault to be a misdemeanor in Maine, no serious injuries, such as a broken bone or severe bruises, can have been inflicted.
Justices Clarence Thomas, who during oral arguments asked his first question in seven years, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
“I part ways with the majority’s conclusion that purely reckless conduct — meaning, where a person recklessly creates force — constitutes a ‘use of physical force,’” Thomas wrote. “In my view, it does not, and therefore, the ‘use of physical force’ is narrower than most state assault statutes, which punish anyone who recklessly causes physical injury.”
One example Thomas used to support his opinion involved a hypothetical situation in which a “father, knowing that he should not be texting and driving, sends a text message to his wife. The distraction causes the father to rear end the car in front of him. His son, who is a passenger, is injured.”
The father’s conduct was reckless but not intentional, the justice said.
Villa, the former federal public defender in Bangor, now of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, argued the case before the justices Feb. 29. She said in an email Monday that Maine needs to give clear information to defendants, many of whom represent themselves, charged with domestic violence crimes.
“The law surrounding domestic violence and firearm possession is so complex that ordinary people don’t, and can’t, understand what the repercussions of their actions are,” Villa said. “I can only hope that the Maine judiciary revises the video for misdemeanor arraignments to better inform those who are arrested of the possible repercussions of what rights are forfeited by pleading guilty.”
Maine law says that individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes may possess guns five years after their convictions if they commit no other crimes. Federal law bans people convicted of domestic violence crimes from possessing guns forever unless their convictions are reversed or they are pardoned.
Judges do inform defendants when and if they decide to plead guilty to domestic violence crimes that they are giving up their right to possess guns but that is at the end rather than the beginning of the process.
If the appeal had been successful, the federal convictions of William E. Armstrong III, 51, of New Vineyard and Stephen L. Voisine, 55, of Wytopitlock would have been reversed and they would be allowed to possess guns again unless they had subsequent convictions in state court that would ban them from having firearms. Both men have completed their prison sentences for the gun and domestic violence convictions.
Armstrong was released in July 2015 after serving seven months after his probation was revoked because he was charged in state court with drunken driving in July 2014. He originally was sentenced to three months of probation and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine in February 2012.
Voisine was released from federal prison in February 2013 after being sentenced to serve a year and day in February 2012. Voisine also was convicted of killing a bald eagle.
Both men entered conditional pleas to the charges that allowed them to pursue their appeals to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Boston. That court upheld their convictions.