Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

III. Federal Statutes and Regulations: B. Criminal Law

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

III. Federal Statutes and Regulations: B. Criminal Law

Article excerpt

Firearms Regulation--Defense of Duress.--Herman Melville wrote that "[s]ilence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature." (1) It is also perhaps the most versatile, mutable thing in law: courts have ascribed varying meanings to congressional silence without ever having established a coherent generalized framework for its interpretation. (2) Last Term, the Court spun silence into cacophony in Dixon v. United States, (3) holding that Congress, despiite its silence on the issue, incorporated the defense of duress into the federal firearms laws and placed the burden on the defendant to prove the defense by a preponderance of the evidence. (4) In so holding, the Court both missed an opportunity to clarify its jurisprudence concerning the constitutional requirement of proof of criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and elided constitutionally significant nuances in the applicable mens rea requirements.

Keshia Dixon purchased several guns at two Texas gun shows in January 2003. (5) To obtain the guns, she provided a false address to the gun dealers and falsely stated that she was not under indictment for a felony. (6) The government indicted her under the federal firearms laws (7) on one count of receiving a firearm while under indictment for a felony (8) and eight counts of making false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm. (9)

At her trial, Dixon admitted knowing that she had committed a crime by purchasing the firearms. (10) She contended, however, that she had acted under duress, claiming that her boyfriend threatened to harm her or her daughters unless she bought the guns for him. (11) In support of her duress defense, Dixon attempted to introduce testimony by a domestic violence expert, sought to admit an out-of-court statement that her boyfriend had made to a federal agent, and requested a jury instruction that the government must prove the absence of duress beyond a reasonable doubt. (12) The district court ruled against Dixon on all three issues, instructing the jury that Dixon bore the burden of proving duress by a preponderance of the evidence. (13) The jury convicted Dixon of all nine counts. (14)

The Fifth Circuit unanimously affirmed all three rulings. Judge Jolly, writing for the panel, (15) first held that the district court properly excluded expert testimony regarding the effects of an abusive relationship on Dixon's state of mind: the merits of the duress defense are determined by an objective inquiry, whereas the expert's testimony would have provided subjective evidence. (16) Second, the court determined that the district court correctly ruled Dixon's boyfriend's out-of-court statement inadmissible hearsay. (17) Judge Jolly briefly disposed of the final issue, stating that the district court's jury instruction on the issue of duress was a correct application of circuit precedent. (18)

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the proper allocation of the burden of proving duress (19) and affirmed. Writing for the Court, Justice Stevens (20) first determined that the jury instruction requiring Dixon to prove duress by a preponderance of the evidence was not an unconstitutional denial of due process. He acknowledged that due process requires the government to prove each element of a crime, including the mens rea, beyond a reasonable doubt. (21) But because duress would not negate the mens rea or any other element of the crimes of which Dixon was convicted, the constitutional requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt established by In re Winship (22) did not apply to Dixon's duress defense. (23) Justice Stevens noted that duress would, however, negate the mens rea for crimes that presume the absence of duress; (24) for these crimes, the government would assumedly bear the burden of disproving duress beyond a reasonable doubt.

Having disposed of the constitutional issue, Justice Stevens next addressed whether federal common law requires the government to disprove duress beyond a reasonable doubt. …

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