US Supreme Court decides case about gun ownership and domestic violence

On March 26, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in U.S. v. Castleman, a case dealing with whether a state's definition of domestic violence met the federal definition for the purposes of precluding gun ownership. The Court's decision will have broad implications with respect to determining which state statutes prohibit gun ownership under federal law.

Different definitions of "domestic violence"

The case resulted from a man's arrest in 2008 for illegally selling firearms after police traced a gun involved in a homicide back to the man and his wife. Police learned that the couple had been involved in an illegal firearms sales operation. Authorities brought federal charges against the man, alleging that federal law prohibited him from even owning a gun. Federal laws prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of violence from owning a gun, and the man had been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2001 for an incident involving his child's mother.

The state statute under which the man was convicted required that a person "intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury" to a domestic partner. The man argued that this crime did not meet the definition of "crime of violence" in the federal statute, which requires "the use or attempted use of physical force." The trial court dismissed the charges, and the appellate court affirmed the dismissal. The appellate court reasoned that the federal statute required a higher level of violence than the state statute, since assault under the state statute did not actually require physical force.

Broad definition of "physical force"

The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts, however, stating that the courts' definition of violence was too literal. Small acts of violence, such as twisting an arm or squeezing someone to the point of bruising, committed by a domestic partner over time accumulate to one partner being able to control and intimidate the other. Additionally, the Court reasoned that Congress intended to have a broad definition of misdemeanor crimes of violence, because at the time the law was passed 10 states did not have physical force requirements in their domestic violence statutes. If they had not intended it to include those states' statutes, the law would have been ineffective when passed.

Domestic violence charges

As U.S. v. Castleman demonstrates, domestic assault charges are serious matters. They can have lasting effects on a person's life that linger past any jail time people serve or fines they pay if convicted of such charges. Those who are facing domestic assault charges should seek the assistance of a skilled domestic assault defense attorney who can help minimize the damages that such charges can cause. If you have questions about domestic assault charges, speak with a seasoned domestic assault defense attorney who can advise you about your rights.