Supreme Court agrees to hear illegal immigrant's appeal of gun charge

Supreme Court agrees to hear illegal immigrant's appeal of gun charge
© Stefani Reynolds

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal from an immigrant in the country illegally who was convicted of unlawfully possessing a gun.

Hamid Mohamed Ahmed Ali Rehaif, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, has asked the justices to decide if the government must prove both that he knowingly possessed a firearm and ammunition, and knew that he was unlawfully in the United States.

Rehaif had been a student at the Florida Institute of Technology but was academically dismissed in January 2015. As a result, his immigration status in the U.S. was canceled in February that year.

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The charges came months later, after Rehaif visited a shooting rage, where he rented a firearm and purchased a box of ammunition.

In December 2015, a few days after his visit to the shooting range, police responded to a report of a suspicious person at the hotel where he was staying. When Rehaif was questioned he admitted he had been to the shooting range and had the ammunition. He was then charged with knowingly possessing a firearm and ammunition while being in the U.S. illegally.

Rehaif was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, but he argues that the government under the law had to prove that he not only knowingly possessed a firearm and ammunition but also knew his immigration status was unlawful when he was at the shooting range. He says the government failed to do so.

Rehaif appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed his sentence. The court relied on prior decisions that found a conviction for a criminal violation of an illegal immigrant possessing a gun does not require proof that the defendant had knowledge of his own immigration status.

It takes four justices on the Supreme Court to agree to review a case and Rehaif may have an ally in Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee.

In briefs, his attorney points to a concurring opinion Gorsuch wrote in 2012 while a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. That case involved a similar dispute over whether the government must prove a defendant knew he was a convicted felon when he unlawfully possessed a firearm.

Gorsuch concurred with the court decision to follow precedent and affirm the felon’s conviction, but reluctantly. In the case, known as United States v. Games-Perez, Gorsuch wrote that following the statutory text would require the government to prove that the defendant also knew of his prior felony conviction.

“Everything Judge Gorsuch said in his Games-Perez opinions applies equally here, the only difference being that the statutory element separating innocent gun possession from criminal conduct is Mr. Rehaif’s status of being illegally or unlawfully present in the United States rather than his status as a convicted felon,” Rehaif’s federal defender argued in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Updated at 4:03 p.m.