Thursday, November 19, 2009

Seventh Circuit Vacates Conviction for Gun Possession By a Misdemeanant Convicted of Domestic Violence, Remands for Further Proceedings

U.S. v. Skoien

Skoien was convicted in state court of misdemeanor domestic battery and was placed on probation. About a year later his probation agent found a hunting shotgun in a truck parked outside his home. Skoien admitted he had gone deer hunting that morning and used the shotgun to kill a deer. He argued below and maintains here that prosecuting him under § 922(g)(9) for possessing the shotgun violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms for hunting. He has not, however, asserted a right to possess the gun for self-defense.
"A grand jury indicted Steven Skoien for possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). Skoien moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that applying the federal statute to him violated his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms as explained in District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008).  The district court denied the motion.  Skoien pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment. H e now reiterates his Second Amendment challenge to § 922(g)(9)....
Accordingly, we cannot conclude on this record that the government has carried its burden of establishing a reasonable fit between the important objective of reducing domestic gun violence and § 922(g)(9)’s permanent disarmament of all domestic-violence misdemeanants.  In fairness, because Heller did not establish a standard of review, the government did not know what its burden would be.  Like the district court, it proceeded on the assumption that the highest standard of scrutiny applied and then relied almost entirely on conclusory reasoning by analogy from Heller’s reference to the “presumptive” constitutionality of felon-dispossession laws.  That was a mistake, for the reasons we have explained.  In any event, our discussion here of the appropriate standard of review should provide guidance for the proceedings on remand.
Before closing, we offer a few additional observations to help those proceedings along. Intermediate scrutiny tolerates laws that are somewhat overinclusive.  See, e.g., Fox, 492 U.S. at 480; Anheuser-Busch, Inc. v. Schmoke, 101 F.3d 325, 327-28 (4th Cir. 1996) (recognizing that intermediate scrutiny in the commercial-speech context allows some latitude between the regulation and the governmental objective). How much is too much is hard to say; it depends on the scope and reach of the law and how much room it leaves for the exercise of the right.  See Fox, 492 U.S. at 481 (noting “the difficulty of establishing with precision the point at which restrictions become more extensive than their objective requires”).  We note that § 922(g)(9) is overinclusive on several fronts: The firearms prohibition exists indefinitely; it contains no exceptions nor any basis for potential restoration of gun rights; and it does not require an individualized finding of risk that the domestic-violence misdemeanant might use a gun in a future offense.  On the other hand, the statutory definition of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” limits the applicability of § 922(g)(9)’s firearms disability to those who actually used or attempted to use physical force or threatened the use of a deadly weapon in a domestic disturbance.  See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A)(ii). The statute thus targets a specific class of violent offender; only those who have already used or attempted to use force or have threatened the use of a deadly weapon against a domestic victim are banned from possessing firearms.
To summarize, we conclude that intermediate scrutiny applies to Skoien’s Second Amendment challenge to this § 922(g)(9) prosecution.  The government has the burden of establishing a reasonable fit between its important interest in reducing domestic gun violence and the means chosen to advance that interest — § 922(g)(9)’s total disarmament of domestic-violence misdemeanants.  Accordingly, we vacate Skoien’s conviction and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.  If the government successfully discharges its burden, the district court shall reinstate Skoien’s conviction."

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