Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Government’s failure to establish element of offense results in reversal.

In United States v, Ambrose Daniel, No. 07-2413 (3rd Cir. March 6, 2008), the defendant Ambrose Daniel was convicted of unlawful possession of ammunition, in violation of Virgin Islands’ law. Daniel had initially been charged in an eight count indictment, including several federal offenses, but was only convicted of the ammunition offense. Daniel appealed his conviction, arguing there was insufficient evidence to convict him of that offense. The Third Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Roth, reversed, holding that the government had failed to prove a requisite element of the offense.

To prove that Daniel was guilty of unlawful possession of ammunition, the government had the burden of showing that: (1) he possessed ammunition on the day of his arrest; and (2) he was not licensed or otherwise authorized to possess the ammunition. In his jury instructions, the judge explained: "The phrase, ‘unless otherwise authorized by law’ means that the defendant had no license nor other legal authority to possession [of] ammunition." During the trial, the government called a witness to confirm that Daniel was not licensed to posses a firearm. However, the government presented no evidence as to whether he was licensed or otherwise authorized to possess ammunition. The government also failed to present any evidence on what was required to become authorized to possess ammunition.

The Third Circuit emphasized that it owed considerable deference to a jury’s guilty verdict. Nevertheless, the Court found that the government presented no evidence on the issue of authorization to possess ammunition. Virgin Islands’ law does not have a licensing requirement for ammunition and the law is unclear as to how one becomes authorized to possess ammunition. The government argued that the court should infer that Daniel’s possession of the ammunition was unlawful because he did not possess a firearms license. However, the Third Circuit refused to make such an inference, holding that it was the duty of the legislature to determine the standards for what constituted unlawful possession of ammunition. Also, the Court further ruled that the government could not meet its burden of proof by substituting proof that defendant was not authorized to carry a firearm, for proof that he was not authorized to possess ammunition.

Finally, the government argued that defendant had failed to raise an affirmative defense that he was authorized to possess a firearm even though he was not licensed. The Third Circuit rejected this position, finding that authorization to possess ammunition is not an affirmative defense. Accordingly, the Court reserved Daniel’s conviction.

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