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Defendant’s knowledge of prior crimes supports current conviction

Although the defendant argued he did not know his prior domestic violence convictions were labeled under federal law as “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence,” that is not the law. His general knowledge was sufficient to support his conviction for possession of a firearm after being convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.


The defendant, convicted by a jury of possession of a firearm after he had been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, or MCDV, has moved for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Rule 29(c). The defendant does not contest that the government proved that he had been previously twice convicted in state courts of assault and battery on a family member.

Rather, his sole contention is that in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), the government was required to prove that he knew that his prior state convictions were labeled under federal law as “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence,” and not simply that he knew that he had been convicted of crimes that met the definition of a MCDV.

The government finds that this argument is meritless but suggests that there should be a new trial because the court committed error by instructing the jury, without objection, that the defendant had, in fact, been previously convicted of a MCDV.


I find that the government presented sufficient evidence to prove that Adams knew that he had been previously convicted of the predicate offenses. It is undisputed that he was present in the courtrooms with his attorneys on both occasions, that he pleaded either nolo contender or guilty to the charges and that he was sentenced in his presence. Moreover, the defendant does not dispute that he knew of his convictions of Virginia law.

Rather, the sole defense was that he did not know that he had been convicted of a crime described in the exact words used in § 922(g)(9) — “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” The defense argument is simply that Mr. Adams would have to know that he was violating the words of a federal law at the time he possessed the firearm and ammunition.

That is not the law. “Rehaif did not graft onto § 922(g) an ignorance-of-the-law defense by which every defendant could escape conviction if he was unaware of this provision of the United States Code.” The undisputed evidence was sufficient to show that Adams knew he had the predicate convictions — his status — at the time of his possession.

New trial

The government contends, however, that the court erred in instructing the jury that Adams had in fact been convicted of a MCDV. The government points out that the Virginia statute that was the basis for Adams’ predicate convictions is broader than the definition of a MCDV in federal law. The government suggests that since the victim under Virginia law may be a sibling, a relationship not covered by the federal statute, the court should have allowed the jury to determine whether Adams’ victims were in fact covered under the federal MCDV statute. It suggests that for this reason the court should grant a new trial.

I do not accept the government’s suggestion that the court grant a new trial. In the first place, this court does not have the power to grant a new trial on its own, absent motion by the defendant. Nothing in the defendant’s motion contains allegations sufficient to allow the court to construe it as a motion for a new trial on the ground suggested by the government. Indeed, the defendant has expressly rejected the government’s suggestion that a new trial be granted on the ground raised by the government.

In any event, even if the instruction in question was plain error, it was harmless. The record clearly shows that there was never any question but that either of the defendant’s prior convictions constituted a MCDV. The only question was whether the defendant had knowledge that either of those prior convictions were a MCDV.

Defendant’s motion for judgment of acquittal denied.

United States v. Adams, Case No. 18-cr-00011, April 24, 2020. WDVA at Big Stone Gap (Jones). VLW 020-3-230. 15 pp.

VLW 020-3-230

Virginia Lawyers Weekly