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National Crime Victim Law Institute

United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405 (2014).

April 18, 2014

Defendant pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of intentionally and knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child.  Several years later, federal authorities learned that defendant was selling firearms on the black market, and he was indicted on two counts of illegally possessing a firearm under a federal statute prohibiting the possession of a firearm or ammunition by any individual who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, which is defined as requiring “as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”  Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that his prior conviction did not qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence because it did not contain, as an element, the use of physical force.  The district court agreed, finding that the force necessary under the statute required “violent contact with the victim,” and finding that because the state charge did not require that the bodily injury be caused by “violent contact,” defendant’s underlying offense did not fall within the scope of the federal statute’s prohibition.  A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split regarding whether violent force is a necessary element of the underlying offense or whether any physical force is sufficient to place an underlying offense within the scope of the statutory prohibition.  The Court held that “Congress incorporated the common-law meaning of ‘force’—namely, offensive touching” in defining what constitutes a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, observing that the common law element of force is “satisfied by even the slightest offensive touching.”  In support of its conclusion, the Court noted that because perpetrators of domestic violence are routinely prosecuted under assault and battery laws, it makes sense for Congress to have incorporated the types of conduct that support a common-law battery conviction when defining “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  The Court further noted that it is important to recognize that domestic violence “is not merely a type of ‘violence’; it is a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.”  For example, the Court explained, “a squeeze of the arm [that] causes a bruise” may not necessarily be described as violent in other contexts, but “an act of this nature is easy to describe as ‘domestic violence,’ when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control.”  The Court found that this contextualization of the phrase “physical force” provides further support for applying its presumptive common-law meaning.  Consistent with this analysis, the Court  held that because defendant pleaded guilty to having intentionally and knowingly caused bodily injury to the mother of his child, and it “is impossible to cause bodily injury without applying force in the common-law sense,” his conviction qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings.

 

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