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February 22, 2016
  United States v. Vinson -- Fourth Circuit
Domestic Violence Requires Intent: A Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence Cannot Be Committed Through Negligent or Reckless Conduct

Areas of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether a conviction for assault in North Carolina under Gen. Stat. § 14-33 qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (MCDV)" for the purpose of charging an individual under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which prohibits individuals convicted of a MCDV from owning a firearm.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on rehearing that Rodney Marshall Vinson could not properly be charged with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) because his North Carolina conviction for assault did not qualify as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (MCDV)." Because a MCDV must involve the "use or attempted use of physical force," the Fourth Circuit found that a MCDV must involve intentional action. Because at least one interpretation of the North Carolina statute under which Vinson was convicted could result in a conviction based on negligent or reckless conduct without intent, the Fourth Circuit vacated its initial ruling and affirmed the lower court's dismissal of Vinson's indictment.

Extended Summary: Rodney Marshall Vinson was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Because Vinson had been convicted previously of assault in North Carolina, upon his arrest and based on the circumstances of that assault, the government alleged he was prohibited from owning a firearm because his prior assault conviction was a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (MCDV)." Vinson was convicted under North Carolina Gen. Stat. § 14-33, which requires that an individual commit an assault "upon a female person by a male person who is at least 18 years old." A misdemeanor crime of domestic violence by definition must have "the use or attempted use of physical force."

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina analyzed whether North Carolina Gen. Stat. § 14-33 should be examined using the categorical approach or the modified categorical approach. The section under which Vinson was convicted states that the act may be an "assault, assault and battery, or affray." The categorical approach would treat each of these as different methods of committing the same crime, while the modified categorical approach would treat each as a distinct crime. The district court utilized the categorical approach and found that the "physical force" requirement of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a) meant "violent force." The district court noted that physical force or violent force was not an element of assault as defined by § 14-33. Because the definition of an MCDV was not met in Vinson's case, the district court dismissed the indictment.

The Fourth Circuit initially reversed after the United States Supreme Court's 2014 decision in United States v. Castleman (134 S.Ct. 1405). That decision broadened the definition of physical force and clarified that it was not necessary for "violent force" be present for a state conviction to qualify under the federal law. Vinson petitioned for rehearing on new grounds, arguing that intent was inherent in an MCDV and the North Carolina statute did not always require intent. The Fourth Circuit granted rehearing and permitted Vinson to raise the new issue of law for the first time on appeal.

In this rehearing, the Fourth Circuit considered Leocal v. Ashcroft (543 U.S. 1), a 2004 Supreme Court case that interpreted the "crime of violence" portion of 18 U.S.C. § 16. Specifically, the Court in Leocal looked at the word "use" in that statute and held that "use" in that context involved the intentional availment of force and not any sort of accidental or negligent conduct. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that because this language is largely identical to the language of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the logic in Leocal is applicable to Vinson's case.

Based on this, the Fourth Circuit held that it was irrelevant whether the categorical or modified categorical approach was applicable. While North Carolina case law establishes that a defendant must act intentionally to be guilty of assault, that intent can be established by a showing of "culpable negligence." The court found that because North Carolina case law defines culpable negligence to involve "thoughtless disregard," North Carolina Gen. Stat. § 14-33 is not a statute that requires an affirmative "use" of force in every potential conviction. Because each form of assault allows for this conviction absent intentional force, even under the modified categorical approach Vinson's conviction could not qualify as a MCDV.

As a result, the Fourth Circuit reversed its initial holding and upheld the district court's decision to dismiss Vinson's indictment.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Traxler, C.J., Gregory, and Agee

Argument Date: 01/27/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 11/03/15

Docket Number: Case No. 14-4078

Decided: Vacated on rehearing and upheld district court's dismissal of indictment

Case Alert Author: Benjamin Garmoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Barbara Dickerson Kocher, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Robert Earl Waters, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Thomas G. Walker, United States Attorney, Jennifer P. May-Parker, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Thomas P. McNamara, Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Traxler, C.J.

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/22/2016 02:12 PM     4th Circuit  

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