Supreme Court Expands Scope of “Domestic Violence” Charges That Affect the Right to Own a Gun

Posted on in Criminal Defense
It is a violation of federal law for a person to possess firearms if he or she “has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently observed, “This country witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year.” In a March 26 opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor, she said that any “offensive touching” constituted “domestic violence” for purposes of federal firearms laws.

United States v. Castleman

This particular case began with the 2008 arrest of James Castleman in Tennessee. In the year 2001, Castleman pleaded guilty to causing “bodily injury” to his mother’s child. Seven years later, federal authorities discovered that Castleman had been selling firearms. He was charged, among other things, with illegally possessing firearms following a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction.

Castleman argued the Tennessee conviction should not count against him because the “bodily injury” did not involve the use of “physical force.” The trial court agreed and dismissed the charges. A divided federal appeals court upheld the trial judge's decision. The majority said the law required evidence of “violent force,” whereas Tennessee’s law might permit a conviction for “a slight, nonserious physical injury with conduct that cannot be described as violent.”

The federal government asked the Supreme Court to review the case. All nine justices agreed the lower courts were wrong to grant Castleman's motion to dismiss the weapons charges. Justice Sotomayor wrote the Court's principal opinion. She agreed with Castleman that a domestic violence charge must involve evidence of “physical force,” but she disagreed as to the degree of force required. All the law requires here, Justice Sotomayor said, was proof of “offensive touching,” which is the standard applicable to a common-law conviction for battery. No evidence of violence is necessary despite the use of the term “domestic violence,” which Justice Sotomayor explained is a “term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as 'violent' in a nondomestic context.”

This last point prompted disagreement from some of the other justices. Justice Antonin Scalia, who agreed with the overall decision to reverse the two lower courts, said that domestic violence should be defined as “ordinary violence that occurs in the domestic context.” But Justice Sotomayor's opinion, which is now controlling law, holds that “a wide range of nonviolent and even nonphysical conduct” may now be treated as “domestic violence” for purposes of federal firearms law. For example, name-calling or emotional abuse could lead to a misdemeanor conviction rendering a person unable to possess a firearm.

Taking Charges Seriously

A case like this demonstrates how even a misdemeanor criminal conviction can have enormous ramifications years down the road. That is why, if you or someone you know faces serious charges, it is essential to seek the advice of an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.
Back to Top