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US v. VINSON NO. 14-4078

Decided: November 3, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the indictment.

Marshall Vinson (“Vinson”) was charged with “possession of a firearm by a prohibited person” after police officers found a rifle and ammunition at his residence, because the government determined that his prior North Carolina conviction qualified as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” The government appealed the district court’s grant of Vinson’s motion to dismiss because the court determined that Vinson was not a prohibited person.

The Fourth Circuit first began by looking to the Federal statute that prohibited possession of firearms by those convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” (“MCDV”), and determined that it was necessary to decide if Vinson was a prohibited person by deciding if the underlying state offense had an element of “physical force” by using the “categorical approach” to look at the elements of the prior offense as opposed to the conduct that caused the conviction. The Court also considered a divisible approach for circumstances in which the underlying crime had multiple elements, to determine if those elements in the state statute match the Federal offense. Although under the categorical approach the district court determined that Vinson’s conviction would not qualify under the Federal statute, the government argued that the North Carolina statute was divisible and that the modified categorical approach should be applied, and that in doing so, Vinson’s battery against his wife counted as a prior MCDV such that the district court erred in dismissing the indictment. The government argued that since North Carolina law defined assault through three alternative elements, it was divisible. The court assumed for the purposes of the case, but didn’t actually decide, that the assault definitions amounted to “alternate elements creating separate forms of the offense,” but ultimately found that none of those definitions required the requisite level of intent needed to be considered an MCDV. The Court then looked at MCDV’s definition, and focused on the “use or attempted use of physical force” requirement, and looking at case law, determined that North Carolina requires a defendant to act intentionally to be guilty of assault. Because North Carolina law allowed intent to be established through “culpable negligence,” North Carolina law allows convictions for all forms of assault, and since those forms of assault didn’t categorically qualify as an MCDV, assault was not a divisible approach, and the Fourth Circuit rejected the government’s argument and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the indictment.

Full Opinion

Jennie Rischbieter