FRE 401 Relevance And "Knowingly" Culpable Conduct

Seventh Circuit considers whether defense evidence about the defendant's "knowledge of his legal status" was relevant on the issue of intent, in trial for knowingly possessing a firearm despite having suffered a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence; trial judge properly excluded evidence that the defendant believed at the time of the charged crime that his earlier misdemeanor conviction did not disqualify him from possessing the charged firearms, which was irrelevant under FRE 401 to the current offense which only required proof that the defendant "knowingly" possessed a firearm, not that he knew he was barred from possessing a firearm, in United States v. Stein, __ F.3d __ (7th Cir. March 19, 2013) (No. 12-2182)

The standard for assessing the admission of evidence under FRE 401 is generally deemed “a liberal one.” See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 587 (1993). The rule requires only that a proffering party show the evidence they wish to introduce has a “tendency to make existence of consequential fact more or less probable.” FRE 401. Last week the Seventh Circuit briefly touched on how this relevance requirement operated to show intent, or lack thereof, in the context of an illegal possession of a firearm case. Stein, __ F.3d at __.

In the case, defendant Stein, an "avid hunter," had previously pleaded guilty to the state misdemeanor battery (domestic abuse) for having assaulted and injured his companion. After serving his two year probationary sentence on the state misdemeanor conviction, the defendant sought to regain use of his firearms for the "upcoming" hunting season. The defendant was apprehended after he filed a federal form "in anticipation of taking possession of a rifle he won at a sports banquet." The defendant was charged with unlawful possession of firearms under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) when authorities discovered the defendant's considerable holdings of guns. Stein, __ F.3d at __.

Prior to trial, the defendant's attorney "sought a ruling that would allow him to introduce evidence and have the jury instructed concerning Stein's self-proclaimed ignorance of his prohibited status" for owning guns. The defense theory was that the defendant was innocent because the government could not prove the requirement of the crime that a defendant “knowingly” violated the federal law banning gun possession. The defense argued that the defendant

could not be found guilty of “knowingly” violating the federal ban on gun possession, if he was unaware of his prohibited status under § 922(g)(9). He thought he could show that his lawyer in the state case had misadvised him that he would still be able to possess a gun without violating federal law, and thus he did not have the required mens rea for unlawful possession. The district judge ruled, however, that evidence concerning Stein's knowledge of his legal status was irrelevant and also rejected his proposed jury instruction.
Stein, __ F.3d at __ (citation omitted). After the defendant was found guilty at his bench trial, he appealed contending that "he should have been allowed to present evidence concerning his lack of knowledge about his prohibited status."

The Seventh Circuit rejected this contention, as a matter of statutory interpretation, as well as in terms of circuit precedent. As the circuit explained:

The Supreme Court has explained, in interpreting the knowledge element of § 924(a), that “unless the text of the statute dictates a different result, the term ‘knowingly’ merely requires proof of knowledge of the facts that constitute the offense.” See Bryan v. United States, 524 U.S. 184, 192–93 (1998). We relied on Bryan when analyzing § 922(g)(8), see United States v. Carlton Wilson, 159 F.3d 280, 288–89 (7th Cir. 1998) (interpreting § 922(g)(8) as suggesting that the mens rea of § 922(g) is satisfied by knowing possession of the gun and does not require proof that the defendant was aware of his status as a prohibited person) and Bryan equally supports the district court's conclusion in this case.
Stein, __ F.3d at __

The circuit noted several other circuits that take a similar stand that "that § 922(g)(9) requires only knowledge of facts" constituting the crime and not that the fact of holding a gun was illegal. These circuits include:

Given the importance of establishing intent in criminal cases, it is not uncommon for the boundaries of admitting evidence to be tested. The Stein case highlights that some evidence is excludable on the issue of intent where the standard is "knowingly" engaging in certain conduct (evidence of the defendant's "knowledge of his legal status" was irrelevant). Evidence that the defense may use to explain the context of the intent was simply irrelevant to that standard. As the circuit cited for another statute, “‘knowingly’ in § 924(a)(1) refers only to the intent to do the act that is proscribed by law, as opposed to the intentional violation of a known legal duty.” United States v. Obiechie, 38 F.3d 309, 315 (7th Cir. 1994).

The case also underscores the distinction between acting "knowingly" for a general intent crime, as opposed to "knowingly" for a specific intent crime. Another example of this distinction is found in the Ninth Circuit Jury Instruction 5.6 (Knowingly - Defined) (2010). This instruction codifies in a different way some of the points the Seventh Circuit did in Stein about the different meanings of knowingly. Sometimes both types of "knowingly" elements must be satisfied at the same time. The Ninth Circuit Instruction reads:

An act is done knowingly if the defendant is aware of the act and does not [act] [fail to act] through ignorance, mistake, or accident. The government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that [his] [her] acts or omissions were unlawful. You may consider evidence of the defendant's words, acts, or omissions, along with all the other evidence, in deciding whether the defendant acted knowingly.
9th Cir. Crim Jury Instrur, 5.6 (2000). Pertinent to the point of the defendant in Stein, the comment to the instruction notes that "[i]t is reversible error to give this instruction in a money laundering case because this instruction does not also require that the government prove that the defendant knew that the funds laundered were illegally obtained."


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