WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a Marion County man charged with felony gun possession because of a previous battery conviction against his then-wife.
The court ruled 7-2 –- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissenting –- to overturn a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the federal government wrongly indicted Randy Edward Hayes in 2005. (To see the ruling, click here.)
Hayes was represented by Charleston lawyer Troy Giatras.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the court on Tuesday.
Hayes, in his appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court, had argued the indictment was invalid because the West Virginia law under which he was convicted in 1994 was only for battery; not, specifically, battery on someone with whom he had a domestic relationship.
Congress in 1996 extended the prohibition against felons having guns to include people convicted for misdemeanor domestic violence.
"This opinion expands the right of the government to restrict your Second Amendment gun ownership rights," Giatras said Tuesday in a press release. "I am disappointed that the justices did not agree with our position.
"I also am concerned that this ruling could lead to the loss of the right to own firearms for many people, not just those convicted of domestic battery but also people found guilty of less serious misdemeanors. It could be as simple as spitting on someone, which can be considered battery."
Ginsburg, in the opinion, said Congress was trying to close a loophole in the law by extending the gun prohibition to domestic abusers, whom lawmakers considered violent, though the offenders were usually not convicted of felonies.
"Construing (the 1996 amendment) to exclude the domestic abuser convicted under a generic use-of-force statute would frustrate Congress' manifest purpose," Ginsburg wrote. "The statute would have been a dead letter in some two-thirds of the states because, in 1996, only about one-third of them had criminal statutes proscribing domestic violence."
Ginsburg added, "Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide."
Hayes had entered a conditional guilty plea with the state district federal court pending his appeals.
The indictment was rooted in a 2004 incident in which police responded to Hayes' home in Marion County on a call of domestic violence. Upon arrival, police searched his home and found a rifle. Police also had evidence that Hayes had purchased several other firearms as well, court records say.
A federal grand jury later returned a three count indictment against Hayes.
Hayes sought to have the indictment dismissed in West Virginia's U.S. Northern District Court, but was denied.
But in a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that in order for a person to be charged under the 1996 amendment, the root crime "must have as an element a domestic relationship between the offender and the victim."
Ginsburg in the opinion noted that the Fourth Circuit's ruling was in contrast to the nine other courts of appeals that had decided similar cases otherwise.
The case was being closely watched by the federal government, gun control groups and women's groups.
"If the case had gone the other way, there are thousands of people who currently are prohibited from buying guns who would have been allowed to buy guns," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence told The Associated Press.
Helmke added, "Women in abusive situations would have been more at risk. Police officers responding to domestic violence calls would have been more at risk."
Giatras, in his press release, noted that the ruling has no immediate effect on Hayes, who already has served his sentence. It just means he never can possess a firearm for the rest of his life.
"I think the implications of this Supreme Court ruling could go as far as affecting someone who had a dispute with a family member that appeared to have been resolved in magistrate's court with a seemingly innocuous agreement to plead guilty to a misdemeanor," Giatras said. "Even if a domestic relationship was not shown in the underlying case, the federal law later could be used to convict the person of a felony and revoke that person's right to own any kind of firearm, if such a domestic relationship can be proven.
"I want to be clear that I don't condone domestic violence, and I believe the government has good cause to prevent certain individuals from owning firearms. But I am concerned that the federal law now could affect many people who made simple, minor mistakes they thought were long behind them. I hope common sense will prevail in enforcing the law, but anyone in doubt about a past conviction should consult a lawyer."