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Reestablishing a Knowledge Mens Rea Requirement for Armed Career Criminal Act “Violent Felonies” Post-Voisine

Posted by on Friday, October 11, 2019 in Notes, Volume 72, Volume 72, Number 5.

Jeffrey A. Turner | 72 Vand. L. Rev. 1717 (2019) |

Until 2016, federal courts unanimously concluded that predicate offenses for the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) required a knowledge mens rea. Therefore, any state law crimes that could be committed with a reckless mens rea were not “violent felonies” and could not serve as ACCA predicates. In 2016, however, the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Voisine v. United States disrupted that lower court consensus.

The Court stated that a reckless mens rea was sufficient to violate 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), which bars individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses from possessing firearms. The ACCA’s language is similar to § 922(g)(9), so, after Voisine, some lower courts overruled their prior ACCA precedents and held that reckless offenses could serve as ACCA predicates. Other courts, however, found that the purpose and context of § 922(g)(9) is significantly different than the ACCA, and ACCA predicate offenses still require a knowledge mens rea.

This Note advocates for a congressional amendment to the ACCA that explicitly includes a knowledge mens rea requirement. A knowledge mens rea is most consistent with how the ACCA has been interpreted, adheres to original congressional intent, and ensures that repeated reckless offenders are not considered “career criminals” and are not subject to the ACCA’s harsh punishment.

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Jeffrey A. Turner