The United States Supreme Court recently announced that it will take on the case of U.S. v. Castleman. In that case, the federal court of appeals decided that Mr. Castleman’s prior conviction in Tennessee for “misdemeanor domestic assault” did not fall within the federal crime that prohibits gun possession by anyone with a prior conviction for a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence”. This case encompasses not only the national debate concerning guns and violence, it also shows how the federal government is trying to further and further expand the reach of federal crimes. Likewise, it demonstrates how good lawyers often prevail in federal criminal cases.
Like many Americans, Mr. Castleman apparently got into a domestic squabble. He was charged with a crime because he committed an assault on the mother of his child, and like so many incidents, he got a sentence of probation. Several years later, federal authorities investigated him for gun crimes, resulting in charges for violating Title 18, United States Code, section 922(g)(9), which makes it a crime for any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm. The phrase “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is defined as a misdemeanor offense, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”
Castleman’s attorney recognized that there is a difference in the wording of the two laws. On the one hand, the federal law says that a person with a prior misdemeanor conviction is prohibited from having a gun only if the prior case involved “physical force”, while the Tennessee misdemeanor to which Mr. Casteleman had pled guilty merely says it is crime to engage in an “assault” of another person with whom you have a child. Not all assaults require the use of physical force. Both the trial judge and the federal court of appeals agreed with Mr. Castleman’s lawyers, and they threw out the charges.
However, the federal government has been waging a war for several years relating to “repeat offenders.” A wide variety of federal criminal statutes call for increased penalties for or prosecution of people who have more than one prior case of a certain category. The key issue is how Congress defined the prior crime for which a prosecution or increased penalty is required. That’s the nub of the issue in the
Castleman case that the Supreme Court recently agreed to decide. Over the past two decades, the Court sometimes allows for a broad use of these recidivist laws, while on other occassions the Justices focus on the specific words used by Congress, and throws out cases that do not fit within the exact words used in the law. We will keep an eye on this one to see how it goes.