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Conley v US

While this case may seem misplaced, we need to look at the case they cite as authority for their principle: Lambert v California (A sex offender failure to register case)

9-26-2013 District of Columbia:

Conley v US

In 2009, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted a statute, D.C. Code § 22-2511 (2012 Repl.), making it a felony offense for a person to be present in a motor vehicle if the person knows that the vehicle contains a firearm (“PMVCF”), even if the person has no connection to or control over the weapon and is not involved in any wrongdoing whatsoever. This is the first appeal of a PMVCF conviction to come before this court. Appellant Antwaun Conley, joined by the Public Defender Service as amicus curiae, contends that the law is unconstitutional and that the trial court plainly erred in allowing the jury to convict him of this crime.

We agree that the PMVCF statute violates due process. We reach that conclusion for two reasons. First, the essence of the offense is the defendant‟s voluntary presence in a vehicle after he learns that it contains a firearm. Yet instead of requiring the government to prove that the defendant‟s continued presence was voluntary, § 22-2511 requires the defendant to shoulder the burden of proving, as an affirmative defense, 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.

Were that the only defect in the statute, it would not necessarily be fatal, for we might sever the constitutionally invalid affirmative defense and construe the remainder of § 22-2511 as imposing on the government the burden to prove that the defendant stayed in the vehicle voluntarily after he learned that it contained a firearm. But burden-shifting is not the statute‟s only constitutional defect; it offends due process in another way. As the Supreme Court explained in Lambert v. California,1 it is 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.

The fundamental constitutional vice of § 22-2511 is that it 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. This is a defect that we cannot cure by interpreting the statutory language.

Accordingly, we are obliged to hold that § 22-2511 is unconstitutional on its face and that appellant‟s conviction for violating that statute must be reversed.

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