Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Supreme Court Watch Case Update: United States v. Castleman Decision


Docket Number: 12-1371
Argument Date: January 15, 2014
Decided: March 26, 2014

Whether a state conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault, defined as intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury, falls under the scope of misdemeanor crime of domestic violence for federal prosecution purposes.

In 2001, James Castleman pled guilty to a misdemeanor domestic assault in Tennessee for knowingly or intentionally causing bodily harm to the mother of his child.  At the time, a misdemeanor domestic assault was defined as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury to” a family member or a household member.  Seven years later, Castleman and his wife were buying firearms and selling them on the black market.  A year later, law enforcement charged Castleman with violating federal statute Section 922(g)(9).  This statute prohibits possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.  According to federal statute Section 921(a)(33)(A)(ii), a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence is defined as “a misdemeanor under . . . state . . .  law and has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed . . .  by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common . . . . ”

Castleman moved to dismiss the charge, stating that his prior domestic assault offense is not a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence since his prior offense did not “ha[ve], as an element, the use . . .  of physical force.”  The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee granted Castleman’s motion stating that “an assault statute that requires the mere causation of bodily injury does not necessarily require the ‘use of physical force.’”  The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.  The Sixth Circuit looked at other federal statutes that also used the phrase “physical force” in affirming the Western District of Tennessee’s judgment.  The court looked at Sections 16(a) and 924(e)(2)(B)(i) and found that “physical force” was equal to a “crime of violence” and “violent felony, respectively.”  In defining “crime of violence” and “violent felony,” both statutes said it is a crime “that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.”  Since the definition of misdemeanor crime of domestic violence dropped the “threatened use,” the Sixth Circuit reasoned that Congress intended to deal with offenses criminalizing degrees of force.  The court also based its interpretation of Section 922(g)(9) by looking at Sections 16(a) and 924(e)(2)(B)(i) which had similar language to and was enacted before Section 922(g)(9).  The United States is now appealing the decision.

The UnitedStates argues that the Six Circuit incorrectly interpreted Section 922(g)(9) and added to the circuit split on what “physical force” means.  According to the United States, the Sixth Circuit interpretation is wrong because violent crime is not required for a crime to qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence and that domestic assault by intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury has, as an element, the use of physical force.  In looking at Johnson v. United States, the United States argues that the Court did not rule on whether “’physical force’ had the same meaning in the context of Section 922(g)(9)’s definition of ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.’”  The Sixth Circuit, along with the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, have defined that Section 922(g)(9) only covers crimes that involve “the violent force against the body of another individual.”  On the other side, the First, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have defined “physical force” as “crimes characterized by the application of any physical force.”

Castleman, on the other hand, disagrees with the United States’ argument and believes that the Sixth Circuit court correctly interpreted the federal statute.  The crux of Castleman’s argument is that intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury is not limited to the use of physical force but rather that it could be achieved through coercion or deception.  Further, they also interpreted the Johnson case to define “use of physical force” to mean the use of violent force in connection with commission of a violent crime.
PRACTITIONERS (pre-decision):
The outcome of United States v. Castleman tests the relationship between state criminal laws and federal law.  The verdict in this case will consequently affect which prior offenders will be convicted for illegal firearm possession.  The outcome will either increase or decrease the potential number of prosecutions and the scope of section 922(g)(9).  If the Supreme Court affirms the Sixth Circuit judgment, future prosecutors will have a hard time keeping prior offenders from obtaining guns.  Prosecutors would need to prove that the offender used violent or strong physical force against a person in order for their state assault or battery charge to fall within the scope of Section 922(g)(9).  However, if the Supreme Court overturns the Sixth Circuit opinion, then potentially all state convictions for assault and battery charges would fall within the scope of the federal statute, if the prior offender is later on caught in possession of a gun.  This would make it easier for prosecutors to enforce the federal statute despite the various state criminal assault and battery statutes.

On March 26, 2014, the Supreme Court rendered an opinion in United States v. Castleman.  The opinion written by Justice Sotomayor reversed the Sixth Circuit holding and held that a conviction of misdemeanor domestic assault constitutes a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” for purposes of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9) in regards to possession of a firearm.  The case was remanded for further proceedings.

In reaching its verdict, the Supreme Court first addressed the pervasiveness of domestic violence in the country and how the combination of domestic violence and guns is a dangerous combination.  Because of this danger, Congress enacted §922(g)(9) to prevent those who were convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence of obtaining any kind of firearm.

In looking at the statute and what “physical force” means, the Court looked at the common law definition of battery and found that offensive touching is what is required under Section 922(g)(9).  In rejecting the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of Johnson v. United States, the Court stated that the common law definition of “force” “fits perfectly” when defining “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as opposed to defining force in the context of a violent felony.  The Court reasoned that Congress more likely than not meant to use the common law definition since most domestic violence convictions are prosecuted through battery or assault charges.   The Court also addressed the fact that most domestic violence assaults are minor mainly involving shoving, grabbing, and slapping.  Once determining that “physical force” was at least offensive touching, the Court then looked at Castleman’s conviction and found that it qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” and falls within the scope of §922(g)(9).

Both Justices Scalia and Alito wrote concurring opinions.  Justice Scalia agreed with the judgment but would have reached the outcome on different, narrower grounds.  He would have defined “physical force” as the Johnson Court did and say it “requires force capable of causing physical pain or bodily injury.”  Justice Alito, on the other hand, would not apply Johnson to this case.  As such, Justice Alito only concurred in the judgment.


Now having clarified the scope of §922(g)(9), federal prosecutors have more legal authority to prosecute prior convicts based on state law convictions.  Namely, if the defendant has been previously convicted for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, where the actus reus is any form of offensive touching, the person can be convicted for gun possession under §922(g)(9) if he or she subsequently is caught having a firearm.  On the other hand, while prosecutor’s power to bring more convictions has increased, defense attorneys now have a harder time.  They no longer have the wiggle room that Johnson gave them.  Instead, if they are representing a defendant who previously has a conviction for domestic violence and is now charged with violating §922(g)(9), it seems unlikely that they will prevail for their client on this charge.

Cassandre Plantin
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner 

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