Defendant was charged with violating the National Firearms Act, which makes it illegal to possess an unregistered machine gun. Defendant’s gun was made with a piece that prevents it from automatically firing, but such a piece eventually wore down and was no longer effective. Defendant argued that the weapon had never fired automatically while in his possession. Defendant requested the jury be instructed such that the prosecution must show/prove he had been aware that the gun could fire automatically.
Trial court rejects the request that prosecution must prove defendant’s knowledge of the gun’s capability and convicted defendant. Appellate court affirmed.
Whether or not the act requires proof that a defendant knew of the characteristics of his weapon that made it an automatic firearm.
Holding and Rule
The court undertook a statutory construction exercise to determine that the appellate court erred in dismissing defendant appeal. The crime would impose an unnecessarily harsh prison term of 10 years on potentially innocent conduct. Generally crimes lacking a mens rea requirement are punishable by small fine or another minimal penalty. The penalty at hand and the crime committed, therefore, are incongruous.
Offenses that do not require a mens rea component are generally disfavored at common law. However, the prosecution argues the statute at hand was proposed for the purpose of public safety and welfare. In such statutes, there is generally a strict liability requirement that requires no mens rea as an element. These type of regulatory statutes are generally applied to dangerous items. The prosecution urges that where a dangerous item is the source of regulation the defendant need only have knowledge “that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a character that places him ‘in responsible relation to a public danger’”; the defendant should also be “alerted to the probability of strict regulation” to sustain conviction.
The court argues that the purpose of doing away with a mens rea requirement is to make it easier for prosecutors to convict on certain offenses. That purpose is not justified in this case, under National Firearms Act. Moreover, the statute cannot be read to suggest that its purpose was to convict persons “whose conduct would not alert them to the probability of strict regulation.”
Prosecution should have been required to show that he possessed specifically a machine gun – the specific type of gun for which is he being prosecuted for possessing. He should not have to simply show that he possessed a “firearm.” He must know both that he possessed the machine gun and that it was, in fact, a machine gun. In other words in order to convict, defendant must know that the item he possessed had all the characteristics that made his firearm a machine gun.