03 November 2013

Law in Plain English: Conley v. United States

Antwaun Conley v. United States
Docket No. Opinion Below Argument Opinion Vote Author Term
No. 11-CF-589 N/A Nov 20 2012 Sep 26 2013 3-0 Glickman N/A


Plain English Summary: In 2009, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted a statute making it a felony offense for a person to be present in a motor vehicle if the person knows that the vehicle contains an illegal firearm (“PMVCF”), even if the person has no connection to or control over the weapon and is not involved in any wrongdoing whatsoever. The statute was enacted in order to allow convictions to be obtained when a firearm is found in a car with more than one occupant and the government cannot prove who possessed it. Conley was arrested after police found a loaded handgun in the center console of a car he was driving (there was also a passenger in the front seat; and two passengers in the rear of the vehicle). The jury acquitted Conley of several possessory offenses. It found him guilty only of PMVCF, and the judge sentenced him to thirty-four months in prison.

Holding: The DC Court of appeals found the PMVCF unconstitutional because it violated due process. Instead of requiring the government to prove that the defendant‟s continued presence was voluntary, the law requires the defendant to shoulder the burden of proving that his presence in the vehicle was involuntary. This shifting of the burden of persuasion with respect to a critical component of the crime is incompatible with due process. Additionally, the Court found it s incompatible with due process to convict a person of a crime based on the failure to take a legally required action—a crime of omission—if he had no reason to believe he had a legal duty to act, or even that his failure to act was blameworthy. In other words, the statute criminalizes entirely innocent behavior—merely remaining in the vicinity of a firearm in a vehicle, which the average citizen would not suppose to be wrongful (let alone felonious)—without requiring the government to prove that the defendant had notice of any legal duty to behave otherwise. As a result, Conley's conviction was overturned.

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