Friday, February 06, 2009

Puerto Rican Felony Conviction Qualifies as Predicate Offense under 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1)

In United States v. Laboy-Torres, No. 08-1220, the defendant challenged his conviction for making a false statement to a licensed firearms dealer under 18 U.S.C. §922(a)(6), arguing that his previous conviction in Puerto Rico was not a domestic conviction under 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1).

The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that the government failed to adequately allege the materiality element of 18 U.S.C. §922(a)(6). Citing Small v. United States, 544 U.S. 385 (2005), the defendant argued that his Puerto Rican conviction was “foreign” and not “domestic,” and therefore it could not serve as a qualifying predicate offense under 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). According to the defendant, the existence of his Puerto Rican conviction was not material to the lawfulness of the sale because the foreign conviction did not make it illegal for him to purchase a firearm under 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, ruling that his Puerto Rican conviction was domestic. The defendant pled guilty on the condition that he could appeal the trial court’s denial of his dismissal motion.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion for the Court. Justice O’Connor determined that Small was inapplicable to the case because, unlike the Japanese conviction at issue in Small, the defendant’s Puerto Rican conviction was in fact “domestic.” In Small, the Supreme Court recognized a presumption that Congress intends its statutes to prohibit only domestic, not foreign, conduct. Consequently, Congress must also intend only domestic criminal acts to serve as predicate offenses for its statutes.

Justice O’Connor recognized that, as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was in essence a “State,” federal laws applied to Puerto Rican conduct. Therefore, based upon the presumption discussed in Small, the defendant’s Puerto Rican conviction was in fact domestic and therefore could serve as a qualifying predicate offense under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). As a result, Justice O’Connor affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

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