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Plea & Sentencing – Jury Instructions

United States Supreme Court

Case Name: Gregory Greer, et al., v. United States

Case No.: 19-8709; 20-444

Focus: Plea & Sentencing – Jury Instructions

Federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by certain categories of individuals, including by those who have been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. See 18 U. S. C. §§922(g), 924(a)(2). In Rehaif v. United States, 588 U. S. ___ (2019), this Court clarified the mens rea requirement for firearms-possession offenses, including the felon-in-possession offense. In felon-in-possession cases after Rehaif, the Government must prove not only that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm, but also that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 11). As many courts have recognized and as common sense suggests, individuals who are convicted felons ordinarily know that they are convicted felons. That simple point turns out to be important in the two cases before us. Before this Court decided Rehaif, Gregory Greer and Michael Gary were separately convicted of felon-in-possession offenses.

Greer’s case arose when police officers began talking to him in a hotel hallway. The officers suspected that Greer was involved in a prostitution ring. Greer ran from the officers and led them on a chase down a stairwell. The officers found a gun discarded in the stairwell and caught Greer shortly thereafter. Greer was wearing an empty holster clipped inside his waistband. At the time of the incident, Greer was a convicted felon. The Federal Government charged him in federal court with being a felon in possession of a firearm, and the case went to trial. Greer’s defense was that he had never possessed the gun that the police found in the stairwell. Greer did not request—and the District Court did not give—a jury instruction requiring the jury to find that Greer knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm. The jury found Greer guilty.

Gary’s case arose out of two separate encounters with police. Both times, officers found Gary with a firearm. At the time of the incidents, Gary was a convicted felon. The Federal Government charged him in federal court with two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gary pled guilty. During the plea colloquy, the District Court did not advise Gary that, if he went to trial, a jury would have to find that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearms.

After Greer’s trial and Gary’s plea, this Court decided Rehaif. Based on Rehaif, both Greer and Gary raised new mens rea arguments on appeal. Greer argued that he was entitled to a new trial because the District Court failed to instruct the jury that he had to know he was a felon. Gary similarly argued that his guilty plea must be vacated because the District Court failed to advise him during the plea colloquy that, if he went to trial, a jury would have to find that he knew he was a felon. The Eleventh Circuit rejected Greer’s argument, 798 Fed. Appx. 483 (2020), while the Fourth Circuit agreed with Gary’s argument, 954 F. 3d 194 (2020). We granted certiorari in both cases. See 592 U. S. ___ (2021).

Affirmed in part. Reversed in part.

Dissenting: SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part

Concurring: SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part

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Derek A Hawkins is Corporate Counsel, at Salesforce.

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