The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a gun case from Maine that is likely to turn on a very narrow point of law.

Two Maine men who pleaded guilty to domestic violence and later were found to possess guns said a federal law barring gun ownership by convicts shouldn’t apply to them because their conduct was reckless and not intentional.

According to court documents, Stephen L. Voisine of Corinth was found guilty of assaulting his domestic partner in 2003 and 2005, before Maine had a separate offense of domestic violence assault. He was arrested again in 2009 on a charge of killing a bald eagle and turned over his rifle to police when they were investigating the case.

He was then charged under a federal law that bars most convicts, including those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence assaults, from possessing guns.

William E. Armstrong III was convicted of assaulting his wife in 2002 and 2008, the documents said, and his house was raided in 2010 by Maine State Police troopers looking for drug paraphernalia and marijuana. State police told agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that they saw guns and ammunition in the house. Although ATF agents later found only ammunition in the house, Armstrong admitted he had arranged for a friend to remove the guns.

Armstrong was charged under the same statute as Voisine and their cases were combined on appeal.

Both their assault cases hinged on recklessness, said Virginia Villa, the federal public defender who represented the men on the federal gun charges. Villa has retired from the Maine federal defender’s office and moved to Wisconsin, but has agreed to continue pursuing the appeal for Voisine and Armstrong.

In an email, Villa said part of the issue with the federal law is that states have different definitions of reckless and purposeful assault, so applying a state conviction to the federal statute barring gun ownership can be problematic.

“There is a tension between purposeful conduct and reckless conduct,” Villa said, and the appeal to the Supreme Court asks that the court determine that reckless conduct does not rise to the level of purposeful domestic violence.

She said other federal district courts have ruled that reckless conduct in domestic violence cases is not purposeful conduct and doesn’t fit the definition of domestic violence in the federal law on gun ownership by convicted criminals. She said the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled otherwise in respect to Voisine and Armstrong, and that may be why the Supreme Court decided to take the case.

A second part of the appeal by the two men argued that the federal charges violated their Second, Fifth and Sixth amendment rights and were ex post facto laws that had a retroactive effect. The Supreme Court said it would not consider that part of the appeal.

No date has been set for oral arguments before the court.

 


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