Decision Expands Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence

Legal Momentum Applauds Supreme Court Decision in U.S. v. Hayes

February 24, 2009 – http://www.legalmomentum.org/news-room/decision-usvhayes.html

NEW YORK (Feb. 24, 2009) – Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls, applauds the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today in United States v. Hayes, a decision that will positively impact victims of domestic violence throughout the country. The Court expanded the reach of a 1996 amendment—the Lautenberg Amendment—to the federal Gun Control Act barring possession of guns by a person convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime. The Supreme Court’s decision guarantees that the Lautenberg Amendment is applied across the nation in fulfillment of its original purpose: to prevent known perpetrators of domestic violence from possessing firearms and to help keep victims safe.   

Irasema Garza, President of Legal Momentum, praised the decision: “The Supreme Court’s ruling will undoubtedly improve the safety of victims of domestic violence by keeping lethal weapons out of the hands of convicted perpetrators. We have seen time and again that guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination. By restricting offenders’ access to firearms, this decision helps to protect victims from attacks that could cost them their lives.”  

For a variety of reasons, most domestic violence perpetrators are charged and plead to or are convicted of misdemeanor offenses such as assault and battery.  Some states have generic misdemeanor assault and battery statutes, but other states have misdemeanor offenses specific to domestic violence.  

At issue in United States v. Hayes was whether the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibits gun ownership by persons convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” applies only to individuals who violate laws that specifically prohibit violence against family members, or if it also applies to anyone convicted of a violent misdemeanor that was, in fact, committed against a family member.  

In 1994, Randy Hayes plead guilty to a misdemeanor battery against his then-wife and mother of his child; ten years later, police responded to a call regarding domestic violence at his home, where they found a rifle and arrested and indicted him for violating the Lautenberg Amendment.  Hayes requested the federal district court to dismiss his indictment on the grounds that his prior conviction was not “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” in that the law that he violated did not require a domestic relationship between the victim and the offender. The district court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment, and Hayes appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In their 2007decision on United States v. Hayes, the Fourth Circuit agreed with Hayes’ argument, and ruled that the domestic relationship must indeed be a specific element of the prior offense in order to trigger the federal gun ban — effectively rendering the gun ban moot in the states that do not have misdemeanor laws specific to domestic violence.  

Reversing the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, the Supreme Court’s decision holds that the gun ban applies whenever the battered victim is in fact the spouse or other family relative of the offender. In the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “It suffices for the government to charge and prove a prior conviction that was, in fact, an offense committed… against a spouse or other domestic victim.” 

Legal Momentum joined the amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, arguing in favor of a natural reading of the Lautenberg Amendment that does not require a domestic relationship to be a specific element of the prior offense. The Supreme Court’s decision supports that interpretation and ensures that the 1996 amendment banning gun ownership for perpetrators of domestic violence applies in all 50 states, thereby improving safety for victims of domestic violence nationwide.

For more information or comment, please contact Erin Smith at 212.413.7516 or esmith@legalmomentum.org.

About Legal Momentum: Founded in 1970 as NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Legal Momentum is the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls. Legal Momentum’s ambitious and wide-ranging legal program is known for its cutting-edge legal theories and as a source of expert assistance to other women’s rights attorneys and organizations. www.legalmomentum.org

5 Responses

  1. Once again it was those infernal plea bargains that allowed the bad guys to keep their guns on the grounds that they weren’t felons.

    Take all guns out of the hands of violent men, for both misdemeanors and felonies.

  2. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is also the Supreme Court “Justice” who said it was all right for municipalities to steal property through eminent domain to transfer it to developers: the ethics of a common thief, in my opinion.

  3. Re: “Take all guns out of the hands of violent men, for both misdemeanors and felonies.”

    How about a woman who hits her spouse/boyfriend/child? It does happen, although not as frequently as violence by males. Sauce for the goose, you know…

  4. Violent people ought not to have guns! If they have hit a spouce or they beat their children this is an indication for sure they are violent- if one hits people they love what will they do to people they don’t love? Take away the guns- or don’t let them get one in the future.

  5. One more step in the right direction.

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