Rehaif v. United States: knowledge of status is required for conviction

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by | July 22, 2019

The United States Supreme Court recent holding in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S.Ct. 2191 (2019), signals a substantial change in U.S. criminal law, which could have significant implications for Virginia state and federal criminal prosecutions. The Supreme Court held that to convict an individual of illegal firearm possession under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the Government must prove (1) the individual knew he or she possessed a firearm, and (2) the individual knew that he or she belonged to the relevant category of persons banned from possessing a firearm.  

While seemingly straight forward, this could indicate a major change in the prosecution’s burden of proof in many federal and state criminal cases. 

Section 922(g) lists nine categories of persons banned from possessing firearms.  Section 924(a)(2) states that whoever “knowingly violates” section 922(g) can be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail. The Supreme Court in Rehaif held that the phrase “knowingly violates” in section 924(a)(2) applies to both firearm possession and the nine categories of persons as stated in section 922(g).  

Specifically, that meant that the prosecution was required to prove that Rehaif knew he was possessing a firearm and that he knew that he was “illegally or unlawfully in the United States”—which is one of the nine status-based categories for persons banned from possessing a weapon.  The Government’s argument, and the prior holding of many circuits, was that the person must know that they possessed a firearm, but they did not have to know of their status that fell under 922(g) and 924(a)(2).  The Supreme Court rejected this argument, and prior holdings. 

While this case only dealt with this one of the nine status-based categories, the Supreme Court’s logic could apply to the other eight categories and a number of other federal and state criminal charges. 

For example, the holding logically means that for a felon-in-possession offense, the individual must know that he or she (1) possesses a weapon and (2) that he or she is a felon.  The fact that the person is a felon alone is not sufficient; knowledge is required. Likewise, this logic applies in Virginia driving on a suspended license offense, where the individual must be on notice that their license is suspended.  This holding may be applicable to numerous other criminal offenses in both Virginia state and Virginia federal courts.  

If you have a state or federal criminal case, consult with qualified counsel today to discuss your case and whether Rehaif may provide additional protection.