Category Archives: Federal Law

Sweeping Ruling on Domestic Violence

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a broad interpretation of a federal law that makes it a crime for people convicted of domestic violence to possess guns.

The court refused to consider a challenge to the law based on the Second Amendment, saying that argument had received only a “cursory nod” in the briefs. Instead, the court considered the meaning of the term domestic violence, with the majority concluding that it encompassed acts “that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.”

The case concerned James A. Castleman, a Tennessee man who in 2001 was convicted of assault in state court for causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. Court records do not say precisely what he did or what injuries the woman sustained.

When Mr. Castleman was indicted under the federal gun law, he argued that it did not apply to him because his state conviction did not qualify as a crime of domestic violence. Though the federal law defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as one involving the use of physical force, he argued that the state law under which he was charged did not require proof of such force.

A federal trial judge agreed, saying one could theoretically violate the state law by tricking a victim into drinking a poisoned beverage. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision, though the justices disagreed on the rationale.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for six justices, said that domestic violence must be understood broadly to include “seemingly minor acts.” The word violence standing alone connotes substantial force, she said, but that is not true of domestic violence.

She gave examples of what might qualify as only domestic violence: pushing, grabbing, shoving, hair pulling and “a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise.”

Since Mr. Castleman had pleaded guilty to having “caused bodily injury,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, the use of physical force serious enough to amount to domestic violence could be assumed.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

In a concurrence, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that the federal law applied to Mr. Castleman. But he objected to the notion that domestic violence encompassed more acts than violence did, calling that an absurdity “at war with the English language.”

Justice Scalia criticized Justice Sotomayor for relying on “law-review articles, foreign government bureaus and similar sources” for her broader definition. Such sources, he said, “are entitled to define ‘domestic violence’ any way they want.”

“But when they (and the court) impose their all-embracing definition on the rest of us, they not only distort the law, they impoverish the language,” Justice Scalia wrote. “When everything is domestic violence, nothing is. Congress will have to come up with a new word (I cannot imagine what it would be) to denote actual domestic violence.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a separate concurrence in the case, United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371.

Gun law aimed at domestic violence offenders vexes court

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with how to keep guns away from domestic violence offenders without penalizing those who are not truly violent.

While the key to the debate was guns, the justices spent most of their time trying to define violence and differentiating it from actions that merely cause injury, whether intentional or not.

The differences are important, because a federal law aimed at denying guns to those with misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence relies on definitions within state laws. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, for instance, assault and battery statutes include provisions for mere touching.

That got the justices to wondering what type of domestic violence could lead to a federal conviction for possessing a gun.

“If I punch somebody in the nose, is that violence?” Justice Antonin Scalia asked.

“How about pinching or biting, hair-pulling, shoving, grabbing, hitting, slapping?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“If the victim is at the top of the stairwell and you go, ‘Boo!’ and he or she falls down and is injured, is that physical force?” Chief Justice John Roberts chimed in.

And Justice Anthony Kennedy raised the specter of a photographer who says, “‘Back up two steps,’ so that the other person falls over the cliff. That’s physical force?”

Faced with the barrage of hypothetical questions, assistant solicitor general Melissa Arbus Sherry said the law passed by Congress was intended to go after wife-beaters, not “someone tickling their wife with a feather.”

Court says drug dog’s sniff at front door is unconstitutional search

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police cannot bring drug-sniffing police dogs onto a suspect’s property to look for evidence without first getting a warrant for a search, a decision which may limit how investigators use dogs’ sensitive noses to search out drugs, explosives and other items hidden from human sight, sound and smell.

The high court split 5-4 on the decision to uphold the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling throwing out evidence seized in the search of Joelis Jardines’ Miami-area house. That search was based on an alert by Franky the drug dog from outside the closed front door.  The defendant was susequently charged with trafficking in marijuana.

Justice Antonin Scalia said a person has the Fourth Amendment right to be free from the government’s gaze inside their home and in the area surrounding it, which is called the curtilage.

“The police cannot, without a warrant based on probable cause, hang around on the lawn or in the side garden, trawling for evidence and perhaps peering into the windows of the home,” Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority. “And the officers here had all four of their feet and all four of their companion’s, planted firmly on that curtilage — the front porch is the classic example of an area intimately associated with the life of the home.”

Teen arrested for yelling 'bingo!' in crowded hall

“For one young prankster, bingo spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

Austin Whaley was arrested after busting in on a crowded bingo hall in Covington, Ky., filled with elderly women. The 18-year-old yelled “bingo,” and the hall erupted in chaos.”

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Cyber-bullying proposals win support, raise legal questions

“Weeks after students in Pasco County filmed a vicious attack on a classmate and posted the video online, state lawmakers want to empower principals to better police cyber-bullying.

It might not be that easy.”

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