The Supreme Court sided with United Arab Emirates citizen Hamid Rehaif in a ruling put forth on Friday.
Rehaif shot firearms at a gun range after being dismissed from college due to bad grades. The bad grades also mean his student visa was to be terminated.
The trouble with Rehaif shooting firearms is that the federal law states that undocumented immigrants cannot possess guns. Rehaif was charged, but prosecutors were told on Friday that they needed to prove that Rehaif knew he was part of a group not allowed to legally possess firearms.
“Without knowledge of that status, the defendant may well lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. His behavior may instead be an innocent mistake to which criminal sanctions normally do not attach,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the seven-justice majority.
He added, “To convict a defendant, the government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.”
Breyer went on to say that restrictions can change radically based on someone’s legal status and that means there can be confusion for individuals.
“As we have said, we normally presume that Congress did not intend to impose criminal liability on persons who, due to lack of knowledge, did not have a wrongful mental state. And we doubt that the obligation to prove a defendant’s knowledge of his status would be as burdensome as the government suggests,” the majority opinion states.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the majority opinion, while Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Justice Alito argued that the ruling will make future prosecutions of convicted felons, stalkers and people who commit domestic violence — who are all affected by the same law Rehaif was prosecuted under — harder.
“Today’s decision will make it significantly harder to convict persons falling into some of these categories, and the decision will create a mountain of problems with respect to the thousands of prisoners currently serving terms,” Alito said.
He also argued that the Supreme Court setting the standard that an illegal alien must know their status to be convicted of specific crimes will create complications in the future.
“Serious problems will also result from requiring proof that an alien actually knew — not should have known or even strongly suspected but actually knew — that his continued presence in the country was illegal,” Alito said.
The actual law at issue is 18 U.S. Code § 922, which makes it unlawful for certain groups of people to possess firearms. Since Rahaif was overdue on his student visa, he was in violation of the law. However, a portion of the law states that people who “knowingly” break the law can face a fine and up to ten years in prison. It is this “knowingly” part that led to the Supreme Court’s decision.
This is unlikely to be the last time we hear about this case. Justice Alito is correct in saying that this ruling will affect future court decisions. Now someone needs to merely prove that they did not “knowingly” break the specific law to have a chance at beating their charge.
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