United States v. Freed

401 U.S. 601 (1971)


Defendants were indicted for possession of unregistered hand grenades in violation of a federal statute that carried a 10-year maximum sentence.

Procedural History

The district court dismissed the indictments.


Were the defendant’s due process rights violated by the failure to allege mens rea?

Holding / Rule

No.  Reversed.  The district court erred in dismissing the indictments for absence of an allegation of scienter.


The act required no specific intent or knowledge that the hand grenades were unregistered.  It simply makes it unlawful for any person “to receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him.”  The mens rea requirement is not absolute, and exceptions have grown especially in the regulation of activities affecting public health, safety, and welfare.  The law at issue is a regulatory measure in the interest of public safety, “which may well be premised on the theory that one would hardly be surprised to learn that possession of hand grenades is not an innocent act.”

Brennan concurred in the judgment, stating that the level of intent should not relate to whether the offense falls in the “regulatory” category. Rather it is a question of congressional intent, taking into account constitutional considerations. Here, the case law under the provisions replaced by the current law dispense with proof of intent with respect to knowledge of whether the weapons are unregistered, and the firearms covered by the act are major weapons with such a great likelihood of government regulation that anyone must be presumed to be aware of it.

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