People convicted of minor domestic violence offenses can be barred from possessing guns even in states where no proof of physical violence is required to support the domestic violence charge, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The case involved James Castleman, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault against the mother of his child in 2001 in Tennessee. He was then charged in 2009 with illegal possession of a firearm after he and his wife were accused of buying guns and selling them on the black market.
Federal law bars a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence involving the use of physical force or a deadly weapon from possessing a firearm. But a federal judge threw out the gun charges against Castleman because the Tennessee law doesn't specify that physical force must have been an element of the offense.
The judge who initially dismissed the charges said the victim could theoretically have been poisoned or tricked into injuring herself, which wouldn't technically count as physical force. The dismissal was upheld, on different grounds, by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and reinstated the charges against Castleman, in an opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Writing for the court, Sotomayor said it was enough that Castleman pleaded guilty to having "intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury to" the mother of his child.
"Because Castleman's indictment makes clear that physical force was an element of his conviction, that conviction qualifies as a `misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,"' Sotomayor said.
The Obama administration had argued that the lower court decisions would effectively nullify the gun ban in dozens of states where misdemeanor domestic violence laws don't specify the degree of force needed for conviction. That would frustrate the intent of Congress, the administration argued, which was to keep firearms away from anyone found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence.