Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Failure to Give Justification Defense Requires Reversal of Felon-in-Possession Conviction

US v. Ricks: Ricks's partner, Blue, returned to their home after several days absence, acting strangely. Ricks noticed that Blue had a gun in his hand, so Ricks pinned him against the wall and knocked the gun out of his hand. Ricks then picked up the gun, removed the clip, and tossed the gun and clip away in opposite directions. Blue fled. Ricks picked up the gun and the clip and placed them (without putting the clip back in the gun) on a dresser in their bedroom and returned to the living room to watch TV. About 15 minutes later, Blue returned to the home with two police officers. Ricks admitted there was a gun in the house and admitted he had a prior felony conviction.

Ricks was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. At trial, he requested a jury instruction on justification, which the district court denied. The court concluded that such a defense was not available in this circuit, as the Fourth Circuit had never held that the defense existed. However, the district court indicated that, if the defense were available, it would apply in this case. Ricks was convicted at trial.

While he was awaiting sentencing, the Fourth Circuit decided the Mooney case, in which the Fourth Circuit held that failure to inform a defendant that the defense was available constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court held a sue spontehearing as to what application Mooney had to Ricks's case. Reversing itself, somewhat, the district court concluded that although a justification defense was apparently available in the Fourth Circuit, it was not applicable in this case. Therefore, Ricks's conviction stood and he was sentenced to 180 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed. The parties agreed on appeal that the district court's initial decision that the justification defense was not available in the Fourth Circuit was error. Therefore, the only issue on appeal is whether the facts of the case supported the jury being instructed about the defense. As to that issue, the focus was on what Ricks did with the gun after Blue fled their home. The Government argued that because Ricks left the gun in the home afterwards, he "had other reasonable alternatives to continued possession of the gun." The Fourth Circuit disagreed, essentially concluding that a properly instructed jury could have found otherwise. Critically, the court refused the Government's invitation to hold that the method of dispossessing the firearm in Mooney- turning it over to police as soon as possible - is the only means to do so. The Government also tried to argue that Ricks's constructive possession of the gun extended to the point where the police officers arrived, but the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to concluded that Ricks intended to exercise continued dominion and control over the gun left in the bedroom.

Ricks's conviction, therefore, was reversed.

Congrats to the FPD office in the WDNC on the win!

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