Illegal firearm possession and courtroom closures


Petitions of the week

This week we highlight cert petitions that ask the Supreme Court to consider, among other things, whether the prosecution in a case of illegal gun possession by a person with a nonimmigrant visa must prove he knew of his legal status, and the inquiry courts should follow in deciding to close the courtroom to the public.

Gun possession and immigration status

18 U.S.C. § 922(g) makes it unlawful for individuals in various categories to ship, transport, possess, or receive any firearm or ammunition affecting interstate or foreign commerce. Section 922(g)(5) concerns anyone “who, being an alien” is “illegally or unlawfully in the United States” (subparagraph (A)) or “has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa” (subparagraph (B)). In Rehaif v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that under Section 922(g)(5)(A), the prosecution must prove not only that a defendant knew he had a gun, but also that the defendant knew of his legal status as a prohibited person.

In Gear v. United States, Melvyn Gear, an Australian citizen who resides in Hawaii on an H-1B visa, asks the justices to decide whether Section 922(g)(5)(B) also requires proof of knowledge of collateral law. In Gear’s trial – six weeks before the decision in Rehaif – the jury instructions required the jury to find whether Gear knew he had a gun, but not whether he knew he was in the United States pursuant to a nonimmigrant visa. Following Rehaif, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Gear’s motion for a new trial, concluding that the evidence at trial sufficiently proved guilt on the Rehaif element. Gear also raises a question for the justices as to the opportunity that appellate courts must give a defendant to make an evidentiary proffer to show plain error.

Closing courtrooms over defendants’ objections

In Waller v. Georgia, the Supreme Court laid out four requirements for a court to consider before closing a courtroom to members of the public, including ensuring that the closure is no broader than necessary and making specific factual findings. In his petition in Huff v. Florida, Patrick Huff claims that a circuit split has emerged as to whether a court must apply Waller when a state has a statute governing courtroom closures. In Huff’s case, the prosecution requested that the courtroom be closed to the public during the testimony of the complainant in a case of sexual battery. Because Huff’s ex-wife was not entitled to remain in the courtroom under a Florida statute governing closure, the court removed her over Huff’s objection. In his petition, Huff maintains that state statutes should not supplant the Waller inquiry interpreting a defendant’s rights under the First and Sixth Amendments.

These and other petitions of the week are below:

Ham v. Breckon
Issue: Whether a district court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 to review a claim that a federal prisoner’s sentence is invalid in light of an intervening and retroactively applicable statutory-interpretation decision of the Supreme Court, when circuit precedent foreclosed the claim at the time of the prisoner’s prior motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

Huff v. Florida
Issue: Whether, as the court below and two other states hold, trial courts may close a courtroom pursuant to a closure statute without undertaking an analysis under Waller v. Georgia; or, as nine states and the federal courts of appeals hold, the Sixth Amendment and Waller require an assessment of the specific facts of the case and proposed closure, notwithstanding the existence of a statute governing closure.

Williams v. United States
Issue: Whether a district court may consider the 2018 amendment to the sentences mandated by 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) in determining whether a defendant has shown “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).

Hawkins v. Banks
Issues: (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit wrongly denied qualified immunity to Officer Shelby Hawkins by finding the use of force was not reasonable as a matter of law when Hawkins had probable cause to believe there was a threat of serious physical injury or death; and (2) whether the 8th Circuit wrongly denied qualified immunity to Hawkins in the absence of any precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation based on similar facts.

Herrera v. Cleveland
Issue: Whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(C) categorically excludes relation back — when a plaintiff files an amended complaint changing the name of a defendant and that amendment relates back to the date of the original complaint — if the plaintiff initially used John Doe placeholders in the complaint due to inadequate knowledge regarding the defendants’ names.

Marchand & Rossi, L.L.P. v. White
Issues: (1) Whether the fundamental utility of the False Claims Act — to incentivize private citizen investigation and prosecution of fraud against the United States — is jeopardized by precedent that allows dismissal of “second-filed” suits even in the absence of evidence that parallel schemes would have been discovered but for the second-filed suits; and (2) whether divergent standards of review utilized by circuits to evaluate first-to-file challenges contributes to lower courts’ failures to allow independently viable FCA claims to proceed on the merits; (3) whether in the absence of congressional intent, the FCA in any event can displace parallel state-law whistleblower remedies.

Gear v. United States
Issues: (1) Whether — given that the Supreme Court held in Rehaif v. United States that in a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A), the government must prove that the defendant knew his legal status — other subdivisions of18 U.S.C. § 922(g) require knowledge of collateral law; and (2) whether appellate courts must give a defendant an opportunity to make an evidentiary proffer to satisfy his burden of demonstrating plain error.

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