On Friday the Supreme Court of the United States surprised many with a ruling that sided with an immigrant from the Unite Arab Emirates finding that his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm was unconstitutional when prosecutors were not required to prove knowledge of the illegality of his action. Hamid Rehaif, who had his student visa terminated, was shooting firearms at a gun range after he was dismissed from college because of bad grades. While the prosecution could prove that Rehaif had been told that his immigration status under his student visa could be effected by the school’s decision, no one could prove that he knew that this also meant he was no longer in the country legally and thus could not possess a firearm under any circumstance.
Under Federal law, undocumented immigrants are prohibited from possessing firearms. Prosecutors in Florida charged Rehaif with that crime in Federal Court. During the trial, the judge in the case instructed the jury that prosecutors were not required to prove that Rehaif knew he was in the country illegally which Rehaif appealed.
Justice Breyer who wrote the majority opinion opined, “To convict a defendant, the government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.” But while the seven justices who sided with the majority felt their decision was clearly limited in scope to this individual’s knowledge regarding his ability to possess a weapon, Justice Alito cautioned the case precedent set a policy that would significantly impact the immigration debate currently existing in our country. Joined with Justice Thomas, Alito wrote, "Serious problems will also result from requiring proof that an alien actually knew—not should have known or even strongly suspected but actually knew—that his continued presence in the country was illegal." Alito also believed that the case could provide bars to prosecution for convicted felons or domestic violence civil defendants who also cannot possess weapons based on their legal status.
With terms like family separation and sanctuary cities being bantered about, the immigration debate is most likely one of the most contested issues in politics today. Indeed, as I write this blog, only yesterday President Trump had called off a last minute ICE national sweep in cities such as Miami where undocumented immigrants were going to be arrested in their homes. Whichever side of the debate you land on, one has to question if every legal situation involving an immigrant will now somehow contribute to this debate. Or as the majority indicated, can cases where immigrants are directly affected simply be a coincidence and not a sign of something bigger? Do protecting the rights of immigrants against government intrusion still protect the rights of us all?
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy