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Eighth Circuit: Defendant Who Pleaded Guilty to State Felonies Didn’t Know He Couldn’t Possess Firearms Prior to Sentencing Because He Didn’t Know He Had Been Convicted

by Anthony Accurso

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a defendant didn’t “know” he had been convicted of a felony under Iowa law after entering a guilty plea but before his sentencing to a deferred judgment and thus vacated his federal conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Christopher Davies pleaded guilty deferred to two felonies in September 2016. He expected to be sentenced to a deferred judgment in December. In some jurisdictions, a defendant is not “convicted” until sentencing. So when Davies was found to be possessing two firearms on October 25, prior to his sentencing, he believed he could lawfully possess them. The Government, however, did not agree and charged him with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(l).

At trial, the parties stipulated that Davies knowingly possessed the firearms, but he argued that he did not know he had been “convicted” when he possessed them.

During a bench trial, the district court determined that, under Iowa law, he had been “convicted” when he entered his guilty plea. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 37 months in prison.

On appeal, Davies argued the district court erred in its understanding of Iowa law. Davies also supplemented his appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), claiming that he lacked the requisite knowledge of his convicted status to be held liable under federal law. The Eight Circuit explained that the Supreme Court in Rehaif ruled that “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” in a prosecution under § 922(g) and §924(a).

On review, the Eighth Circuit determined the district court’s summary of applicable Iowa law was correct. The Iowa Supreme Court considered a nearly identical situation in State v. Den Kon Tong, 805 N.W.2d 599 (Iowa 2011). It noted that the Iowa felon-in-possession statute, Iowa Code § 724.26, covered deferred judgments because it established “a broad interpretation of the term ‘convicted’” based on persons having engaged in certain “conduct.” Thus, once Davies admitted to the applicable conduct during his plea hearing, he was then barred from possessing firearms under Iowa law.

However, the Eighth Circuit, upon considering Davies’ argument under Rehaif, ultimately decided he may have lacked the requisite knowledge that he was barred from possessing the firearms.

Deferred judgments are especially tricky because a defendant may complete a term of probation in exchange for having record of the conviction removed from his record. As such, once Davies successfully completes his probation, he would no longer have a “conviction” under the law since it will have been removed from his record. And, because this probation had not been imposed when Davies was found with the firearms, he could have mistakenly believed he could possess them. Thus, the Court concluded that the “facts establish that Davies knew he pleaded guilty to the Iowa felonies, they do not show that he knew he had been convicted of the Iowa felonies” prior to sentencing when he possessed the firearms on October 25.

The Court noted that the Supreme Court instructed that a defendant who doesn’t know his status under § 922(g) “may well lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. His behavior may instead be an innocent mistake to which criminal sanctions normally do not attach.” Rehaif.

Because of the lack of certainty with respect to Davies’ understanding of whether he had been convicted when he possessed the firearms, the Court determined that the outcome of his trial may have been different had the district court had the benefit of the interpretation of § 922(g)(l) promulgated by Rehaif. Thus, Davies could show the error was plain, and it affected his substantial rights, which affected the fairness of his trial under United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993).

Accordingly, the Court vacated Davies’ conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm and remanded for a new trial. See: United States v. Davies, 942 F.3d 871 (8th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Davies

 

 

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