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Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Backs Immigrant Unaware of Legal Status in Gun-Possession Case

A Supreme Court police officer descends the steps in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2016. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that an illegal immigrant unaware that his legal status barred him from possessing a gun cannot be prosecuted for possession, in a decision that could affect thousands of previous cases.

The Court’s decision will force prosecutors to prove that a member of a group barred from having a firearm knows they are a member before they can be convicted of a crime. In cases where the individual’s status is the “crucial element,” the person must be aware of it, the Court said.

“Without knowledge of that status, the defendant may well lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. His behavior may instead be an innocent mistake to which criminal sanctions normally do not attach,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the seven-justice majority. “To convict a defendant, the government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined Breyer in the majority, while Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.

“Serious problems will also result from requiring proof that an alien actually knew—not should have known or even strongly suspected but actually knew—that his continued presence in the country was illegal,” Alito wrote in his dissent.

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