By Anthony Biraglia

In the criminal case of United States v. Vinson, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a North Carolina district court’s dismissal of Rodney Vinson’s (“Vinson”) indictment for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). In a published opinion released on November 3, 2015, the Court found that Vinson’s prior misdemeanor conviction in North Carolina did not contain the necessary elements to be considered a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A)(ii). The Court reasoned that because an assault conviction in North Carolina can be sustained when the defendant acts with “culpable negligence,” the elements Vinson’s North Carolina misdemeanor conviction did not match the elements of the federal offense as explained by the Supreme Court in Leocal v. Ashcroft. This issue was dispositive, and thus the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgement.

District Court Dismisses, Court of Appeals Reverses & Later Grants Rehearing

After police found a firearm at Vinson’s home, the government charged him with possession of a weapon by a prohibited person because Vinson had previously been convicted of a misdemeanor battery of his wife under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33. Under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9), persons convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” (“MCDV”) are prohibited from possessing firearms when the underlying offense has an element that involves the use or attempted use of physical force. To determine whether the underlying offense meets this standard, the Court uses the “categorical approach,” or in this case the “modified categorical approach,” which focuses on the elements of the underlying offense rather than the actual conduct of the defendant that led to the conviction. Courts apply the “modified categorical approach” when the underlying offense is “divisible,” or consists of multiple, alternative elements that create different crimes. In such situations, the reviewing court may examine a limited number of trial court documents to determine if the crime the defendant was convicted of meets the federal requirements of the underlying offense.

The district court originally dismissed the case based a Fourth Circuit definition of “physical force” that the Supreme Court later disagreed with. On appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment based in part on the Supreme Court’s contrary holding. The Court was divided on another issue, however, and Vinson was able to petition for rehearing. In a rather unusual occurrence on rehearing, the Court considered an alternative ground for affirming the district court’s opinion (that was not previously raised by the defendant) that became the sole issue of the appeal; namely whether the culpability level required for a conviction under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33 met the culpability level required for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)(A). Because the Court found that one could be convicted under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33 based on a “culpable negligence” standard, Vinson’s misdemeanor conviction could not satisfy the elements of the federal crime, which required “intentional” conduct.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33’s Elements Do Not Match Those of an MCDV Under 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)(A)(ii)

In Leocal v. Ashcroft, the Supreme Court interpreted a similarly worded statute to 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)(A)(ii). The Supreme Court explained that the word “use” refers to the intentional, rather than negligent or reckless, availment of physical force by the defendant. Based on this definition, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that Vinson could not be indicted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) if N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33 allows for a conviction based upon negligent or reckless conduct.

Citing North Carolina case law, the Court identified three different types of assault in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-33 for which a defendant could be convicted. North Carolina law generally, and these three types of assault in particular, requires that a person act “intentionally” to be convicted of assault, but the required intent can also be established under a “culpable negligence” standard. “Culpable negligence” focuses on “thoughtless disregard,” which the Fourth Circuit had previously determined to be a lesser standard of culpability than recklessness. North Carolina thus allows for an assault conviction when the defendant acts with a significantly lower level of culpability than is required under the federal statute.

Fourth Circuit Affirms

Because none of N.C. Gen. Stat. 14-33’s three categories of assault have elements matching those of an MCDV under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A), the Court affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the indictment.