Justia Summary

Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot firearms at a firing range and was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g), which makes it unlawful for certain persons, including aliens illegally in the country, to possess firearms, and section 924(a)(2), which provides that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The jury was instructed that the government was not required to prove that Rehalf knew that he was unlawfully in the country. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction.

The Supreme Court reversed. In a prosecution under sections 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. The Court noted a longstanding presumption that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each statutory element that criminalizes otherwise innocent conduct. The statutory text supports the application of presumption requiring “scienter.” The term “knowingly” is normally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime and clearly applies to section 922(g)’s second element, possession. There is no basis for interpreting “knowingly” as applying to the second element but not the first (status). Possessing a gun can be an innocent act; it is the defendant’s status that makes a difference. Without knowledge of that status, a defendant may lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. Rehaif’s status as an alien “illegally or unlawfully in the United States” is a “collateral” question of law and a mistake regarding that status negates an element of the offense.