Whether you are a resident of New York state, or are just visiting, you are expected to know and follow all state and federal laws. This is particularly important for criminal laws and gun laws. But even the courts can sometimes have a hard time deciding which acts are unlawful and what a criminal statute requires. The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in a case involving the immigration status of a criminal defendant and what the government is required to prove.
According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was present in the United States on an F-1 student visa. He was dismissed from the university he was attending in December 2014, and his student visa status was terminated in February 2015. After his status was terminated, he stayed in the United States. Later that year, he went to a shooting range, bought ammunition, and rented a firearm for an hour. He was staying at a hotel, and several days later, an employee told police that he had been acting strangely. The FBI spoke with him, and he admitted to firing a firearm at the shooting range. The police searched his hotel room and also found the rest of the ammunition he had bought. The defendant was charged with two counts under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A).
Under that statute, it is unlawful for a person “who, being an alien . . . is illegally or unlawfully in the United States … to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A). If found guilty, a person can be sentenced to a fine, and up to ten years imprisonment.
The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the government must prove, in addition to proving that the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm or ammunition, that the defendant knew at the time of the offense that he was in the United States illegally or unlawfully. The government also argued that a person admitted to the United States on a student visa, has unlawful status on the date of the status violation of the visa terms. The related statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), states that a person is guilty under the statute if the person “knowingly violates” § 922(g). The parties agree that the government must prove that a defendant knowingly possessed a firearm, but disagreed whether the government must also prove that the defendant was knowingly illegally or unlawfully present in the United States.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the government. It found that the government does not need to prove that the defendant knew he was in the United States unlawfully. It also held that unlawful status does not require adjudication by an immigration judge or by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and thus the defendant’s status was unlawful when his student visa terms were violated. The Supreme Court now has to decide whether to uphold the Eleventh Circuit’s decision.
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