Federal law bans felons, illegal aliens, and others from knowingly possessing guns (or ammunition); does the government also have to show that the defendant knew he was a felon, illegal alien, or within some other prohibited category? [UPDATE: Last paragraph corrected.]
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question (which then-Judge Gorsuch had answered “yes” in an earlier opinion).
Title 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) basically provides that, “It shall be unlawful for any person” who has a felony conviction, who is an illegal alien, or who belongs to some other categories, “to possess” or “receive” “any firearm or ammunition.” Title 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) provides that such people shall be punished if they “knowingly violate” § 922(g).
The “knowingly” requirement is often relevant when the question is whether someone knowingly possessed a gun. (Say the gun was in a bag they were carrying, and they claimed they were just carrying it for a friend and didn’t know what was in it.) But what about the situations—admittedly rare ones—where the defendant claims he doesn’t know that he has a disqualifying conviction, or that his right to remain in the country has lapsed, and he has turned from a formerly lawful visitor to an illegal alien?
That’s the question facing the Court in Rehaif v. U.S. Rehaif is a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, who was let into the country on a student visa to study mechanical engineering; he apparently failed out, which meant his visa expired as a result. But Rehaif stayed in the country, and went to a shooting range, where he rented a gun and bought ammunition. Six days later, an employee at the hotel at which Rehaif was staying called the police to say Rehaif was acting suspiciously; when an FBI agent came to speak to Rehaif, he learned about Rehaif’s trip to the shooting range (at which he possessed a gun) and his continued possession of ammunition. Rehaif was prosecuted for both, on the theory that he was an illegal alien.
by Eugene Volokh