7th Circuit affirms firearms convictions in light of key SCOTUS ruling

In what it called its first precedential decision concerning convictions upon jury verdicts in federal firearms cases after a key US Supreme Court decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the convictions of three men who argued that their indictments and jury instructions were missing an element.

In separate cases consolidated by the appellate court, Carlos Maez robbed a South Bend bank at gunpoint in 2015. Firearms and ammunition were discovered in Matthew Jones’ bedroom in 2018 when police executed a search warrant for his Illinois home. And when federal agents arrested Cameron Battiste and his girlfriend outside their Illinois apartment complex in 2017, two firearms were found inside a laundry bag she was carrying.

All three men stipulated at their respective trials that prior to the charged possession of a firearm, they had been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. Each man was found guilty by a jury on one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and sentenced under § 924(a)(2).

In appeals prompted by a 2019 decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), Maez, Jones and Battiste all argued that Rehaif requires reversal of their § 922(g) convictions. In that case, the United States Supreme Court held that the statute requires the government to “show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.”

Before that, however, the federal courts of appeals had all held that § 922(g) required the government to prove a defendant knowingly possessed a firearm or ammunition, but not that the defendant knew he or she belonged to one of the prohibited classes.

In their appeals, the men argued that their indictments were defective because they failed to allege that they knew of their felon status and that the jury instructions erroneously omitted this same element of knowledge.

None of the men objected to the indictment or jury instructions in the district courts, on any grounds, but Jones did move for a judgment of acquittal at the close of evidence without giving specific grounds to support it. His motion was ultimately denied without the court asking for an elaboration.

Questioning the scope of the Supreme Court’s holding on appeal, Jones and Battiste posed whether defendants must know that it was a crime to possess a firearm as a result of their prohibited status. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in a Monday decision, noting that it does not read Rehaif as imposing a willfulness requirement on § 922(g) prosecutions.

Next, the 7th Circuit considered three distinctive errors argued on appeal: a defective indictment, an element omitted from jury instructions, and a denied Rule 29 motion. Ultimately, it concluded that the Rehaif errors alleged did not require reversal of any of the § 922(g) convictions.

Starting with Maez, it noted that the jury heard several pieces of undisputed evidence that strongly supported an inference that Maez knew he was a felon based on his previous felony convictions and decades spent in prison. It additionally found no plain error in Maez’s indictment.

Battiste, also challenging his jury instructions and indictment, was likewise affirmed with a few variations on the 7th Circuit’s reasoning in Maez’s case. It noted that Battiste’s indictment was phrased differently from Maez’s with the word “knowingly” coming after the fact of the prior felony conviction.

“We assume there was a plain error here,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the 7th Circuit. “But even assuming a plain error in the indictment and even assuming an effect on Battiste’s substantial rights, we still decline to exercise our discretion to correct the error. As with the missing element in the jury instructions, it is clear that the wording of the indictment did not undermine the fairness or integrity of judicial proceedings. Considering the evidence heard by the trial jury and Battiste’s extensive prior criminal history laid out in detail in his PSR, ‘we can be confident in retrospect that the grand jury (which acts under a lower burden of persuasion) would have reached the same conclusion.’”

Lastly, the 7th Circuit similarly affirmed for Jones on the same issues, but remanded his sentence upon finding the district court committed a Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 334 (2011) error.

“Jones argues, and the government and we agree, that the judge’s explanation for his sentence showed a Tapia error. When a term of imprisonment is improperly imposed for rehabilitative purposes, remand for resentencing is the appropriate remedy,” the 7th Circuit concluded.

The Indiana case is USA v. Carlos Maez, 19-1287.

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