18 USC 922 Conviction Reversed Because Of Improper Jury Instructions

18 USC 922(a)(3) makes is unlawful for non gun dealers to buy firearms in one state and then take those guns to another state if doing so would violate the law in the state where the firearms are transported to.

Lucio Hernandez was charged with violating 18 USC 922 after purchasing five guns in Arizona that he subsequently transported to California. California law requires individuals to wait ten days before purchasing a firearm. In addition, only one gun can be purchased at a time.

At issue on appeal was whether the jury was properly instructed about the willfulness element of the 18 USC 922 charge. The lower court gave the following instruction to the jury:

A person acts willfully if he acts intentionally and purposely and with the intent to do something the law forbids, that is, with the bad purpose to disobey or disregard the law. Now, the person need not be aware of the specific law or rule that his conduct may be violating. But he must act with the intent to do something that the law forbids.

Hernandez asked for a narrower instruction. Specifically, Hernandez wanted it “made clear that Hernandez could have acted willfully only if he knew that bringing the guns to California was somehow unlawful.” The trial judge, however, refused to give Hernandez’ proposed narrower instruction. In fact, the trial judge found that Hernandez could be found guilty based on “crimes separate and distinct from the actual transportation of firearms.” To this end, the Government put on evidence that Hernandez later illegally sold some of the firearms that he acquired while in Arizona.

The Ninth Circuit reversed.

We hold that the broad jury instruction, combined with the evidence of the commission of later crimes and the government’s argument to the jury, resulted in significant prejudice to Hernandez. The rule from the common law requires that a defendant’s mental state and act coincide for a conviction to be valid. Neither Bryan nor §§ 922(a)(3) and 924 deviate from this rule. Here, the combination of the broad jury instruction and the government’s introduction of evidence that Hernandez intended to later unlawfully sell the guns he purchased, raises a substantial likelihood that he was convicted for the act of transporting guns with the intent to commit a later crime rather than the one with which he was charged. This substantial likelihood requires reversal under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

See: United States v. Lucio Hernandez, No. 14-50214 (9th Cir. 2017).


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