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Supreme Court Rules on Gun Possession Knowledge



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On Monday, June 21, 2021, the Supreme Court sided with the government in a decision to reject criminal defendants’ due process arguments, in a dispute over appellate review when it comes to felon-possession cases.

The ruling was almost unanimous. The Court decided to reject defendants’ attempts to automatically overturn their gun convictions because their status as felons was not proved.

The Story Behind The Case

This case began with Rehaif v. United States in 2019, which ruled that in felon-possession cases, federal prosecutors have to prove that defendants both knew they possessed firearms and knew that they were felons.

Monday’s Supreme Court case was about what standard to apply on appeal whenever Rehaif errors are made, but the defendants do not object.

The Justice Department was concerned about the Supreme Court casting “windfalls” to gun possessors, arguing the issue was more of a technicality that would not make any real difference since people generally know that they are felons.

On the other side, defense lawyers argued the issue was critical in protecting due process.

How The Court Ruled

In April, the Supreme Court heard two cases, Greer v. United States and United States v. Gary, argued back-to-back. Together, these cases led the court to their decision to rule in favor of the United States government.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court, “Here, Greer and Gary have not carried the burden of showing that the Rehaif errors in their respective cases affected their substantial rights,” referring to the defendants of the two cases, Gregory Greer and Michael Andrew Gary.

Additionally, in the combined opinion against both defendants, Kavanaugh stated that someone who is a convicted felon is usually aware that they are a convicted felon. This is along the same lines as what many other courts have recognized, and it follows common sense reasoning, too.

Important Background to Know

Initially, Greer had challenged a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruling because it looked outside of the presented evidence in his trial, and they found that he had been convicted of a number of felonies before his most recent gun possession.

In the other case mentioned, Gary had pleaded guilty without the judge in his case telling him that one element of his crime was knowledge of his status as a felon. The Justice Department then appealed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s ruling that sided with Gary.

The Supreme Court’s Final Word

Kavanaugh’s opinion affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision and reversed the Fourth Circuit’s. His opinion was joined by the rest of the court, except for one Justice.

“Justice Sonia Sotomayor partially dissented from the Court’s opinion,” says Seth Okin, Attorney at Law. “While Sotomayor agreed about the Fourth Circuit being wrong to automatically grant relief, the rest of her opinion on the matter differed.”

She would have preferred the high court send his case back to the appeals court, so Gary could argue there that the Rehaif error had substantially affected his rights. She also disagreed with creating a legal presumption that all convicted felons know they are convicted felons.

She argued that the U.S. government needs to prove an individual’s knowledge of their felon status beyond a reasonable doubt, just like other evidence presented in a court case.

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