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United States v. Carpio-Leon, No. 11-5063

Decided:  December 14, 2012

Defendant Nicolas Carpio-Leon, an illegal alien “indicted for possessing firearms while being ‘illegally or unlawfully in the United States,’” appealed his guilty plea based on his contention that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5), which prohibits illegal aliens from possessing firearms, violated his rights under the Second and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  The Fourth Circuit ultimately held § 922(g)(5) to be constitutional and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

On appeal, Carpio-Leon made two arguments.  First, he contended “that possession of firearms typically used for self-defense in one’s home is protected by the Second Amendment, even when such possession is by an illegal alien.”  After recognizing that it had “not had occasion to address a Second Amendment challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5),” the court noted that three other circuits “have upheld the provision in the face of a Second Amendment challenge.”  The court further noted that it had “found no court of appeals decision that has found [the provision] unconstitutional.”  The court then engaged in a Second Amendment analysis prescribed by Heller and applied the two-step approach set forth in its 2010 decision in United States v. Chester.

Applying the first step, the court looked to determine “whether the challenged law imposes a burden on conduct falling within the scope of the Second Amendment’s guarantee” by deciding “whether the scope of the Second Amendment includes the protection of aliens who are illegally in this country.”  The court focused on the text of the Second Amendment, specifically the language protecting the rights of “the people,” but it found that the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller provided little help in determining “whether ‘the people’ includes illegal aliens.”  Despite the lack of clear precedent on this matter, the court found that “Heller concludes … that the core right historically protected by the Second Amendment is the right of self-defense by ‘‘law-abiding, responsible citizens,’’” and therefore it determined that it did not need to determine the scope of “the people” under the Second Amendment.  Finally, the court employed a historical analysis and ultimately held “that illegal aliens do not fall in the class of persons who are classified as law-abiding members of the political community for the purpose of defining the Second Amendment’s scope.”  The court was careful to limit its holding by making it clear that it did “not hold that any person committing any crime automatically loses the protection of the Second Amendment.”  Based on this holding, the court determined that it did not need to proceed to the second step provided in Chester because under the first step it “conclude[d] that Carpio-Leon’s constitutional challenge under the Second Amendment must fail.”

Next, the court considered Carpio-Leon’s second argument on appeal that § 922(g)(5) “violate[d] his right to equal protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”  Carpio-Leon based this argument “on his claim that the right to bear arms in one’s home for protection is a fundamental constitutional right” such that the court should apply strict scrutiny in evaluating § 922(g)(5).  The government, on the other hand, argued that this statute “is subject to a rational basis review because illegal aliens do not have a fundamental right to bear arms.”  The court agreed with the government, finding that “no fundamental constitutional right is at stake, [and] the appropriate standard of review is the rational-basis review.”  Under this analysis, the court determined that Carpio-Leon “[could] not show that there is no rational relationship between prohibiting illegal aliens from bearing firearms and the legitimate government goal of public safety” and concluded that § 922(g)(5) “survives rational scrutiny and is, therefore, also constitutional under the Fifth Amendment.”

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite