Thursday, December 30, 2010

Intermediate Scrutiny for Second Amendment Review of MCDV Cases

US v. Chester: Police were called to Chester's home during a dispute with his then wife. A search of the home uncovered a pistol and a shotgun, which Chester admitted belonged to him. He was charged with possession of firearms after being convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, based on an earlier incident involving his daughter. Chester moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that it violated his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, as set forth in the Supreme Court's Heller decision. The district court denied the motion, and Chester pleaded guilty, reserving his ability to appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit initially vacated Chester's conviction in an unpublished opinion, remanding for the district court to identify a specific level of scrutiny and apply it. The Government sought rehearing, which the panel granted. In this published opinion, the court identifies the correct level of scrutiny, but vacates Chester's conviction to remand for application of that standard. The court adopted the two-step process set forth in the first opinion, based on the panel decision in US v. Skoien, 587 F.3d 803 (7th Cir. 2009), although that decision was later vacated by an en banc court.

As a first step, the court assumed (because the historical evidence was unclear) that Chester's possession fell within the general parameters of the Second Amendment. The court then held that the proper level of scrutiny to apply was intermediate scrutiny, analogizing to the lesser protections under the First Amendment for commercial speech and time, place, manner restrictions. On this record, the court could not conclude that the Government met its burden under that standard, noting that while the Government "has offered numerous plausible reasons why the disarmament of domestic violence misdemeanants is substantially related to an important government goal . . . it has not attempted to offer sufficient evidence to establish a relationship between [this prohibition] and an important government goal." Therefore, the court remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Judge Davis concurred in the judgment, but took the majority to task for relying too heavily on analogies between the First and Second Amendments. He endorses the result of the en banc decision in Skoien and argues that the district court will have no trouble concluding that Chester is not protected from conviction by the Second Amendment.

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