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Supreme Court Decision Update - Dixon v. United States

supreme2.jpgIn the Supreme Court’s fourth case today, Dixon v. United States (PDF of the Opinion), the Supremes tackle a case involving firearms and duress, which you’d think would be exciting. Unfortunately, the central issue in the case only involves burden shifting, which is not going to win the Court any points for entertainment value.

Quizlaw Analysis: The Supremes basically hold that, when arguing duress as an affirmative defense to a federal statutory crime, it is the defendant’s duty to prove duress beyond the preponderance of the evidence, and not the government’s job to disprove duress beyond a reasonable doubt. To get to that simple conclusion, however, two concurrences were apparently necessary, because our beloved Supreme Court likes to split its hairs.

The facts, at least, are interesting: In 2004, Keshia Dixon, who was under indictment, purchased several firearms at a gunshow and gave an incorrect address and withheld information about her indictment. As a result, she was charged and convicted of several crimes related to the purchases. Dixon, however, argued that she bought the firearms only under duress; it seems that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her or hurt her daughters unless she bought him the guns.

That’s where the interesting stops, however, because the issue turns to jury instructions and, more specifically, whose burden it was to prove or disprove the duress defense. The Fifth Circuit held that the jury instructions should ask the jury to consider whether Dixon had proved the duress defense beyond the preponderance of the evidence. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 opinion, agreed. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stevens, based its conclusion on common-law precedent. Because federal criminal law does not speak to the issue of who has the burden when duress is introduced as a defense, Stevens wrote that Congress must have been aware of long-held common-law precedent that required the defendant to set up and establish the defense of duress when it chose not to draft contradicting language in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The long-held reason for making the defendant prove affirmative defenses like duress is that “where the facts with regard to an issue lie peculiarly in the knowledge of a party, that party has the burden of proving the issue.”

Dixon, however, relies on Davis v. United States, a Supreme Court decision which held that the government had the burden of proving a defendant’s sanity. The Supremes, however, dismiss the argument, noting that, in Davis, the government had the burden because insanity tended to “controvert the necessary mens rea for the crime,” and the government shouldered the burden because “the evidence that tended to prove insanity also tended to disprove an essential element of the offense charged.” Here, however, “the evidence of duress did not contradict or tend to disprove any element” of the crime.

Justice Kennedy wrote separately, concurring with the opinion, but emphasizing that the holding had less to do with Congressional intent and more to do with the fact that the evidence needed to prove or disprove the defense of duress “lie(s) peculiarly in the knowledge of” the defendant.

Alito, who also wrote a concurring opinion that Scalia joined in on, basically chimed in to disagree with Kennedy’s emphasis, and to reassert that the ruling had more to do with Congress’ intent to co-opt common-law precedent than it did with who had the superior evidence to prove or disprove duress.

Finally, Breyer — joined by Justice Souter — wrote the dissent, basically disagreeing with the majority’s view of Congressional intent. While the majority held that Congress intended for common-law precedent to fill in the gaps uncovered by federal statute, Breyer disagreed, noting that Congressional silence should not be interpreted to mean that courts should co-opt common-law precedent. Rather, Breyer suggested, courts should follow the lead of other federal courts who have interpreted the federal criminal statutes since their enactment. Here, some federal courts have shifted the burden to the prosecution with respect to actus reus, mens rea, mistake, self-defense and entrapment. Therefore, federal courts should do the same with duress, because it is similar nature to these other elements and defenses.

And while I’m a fan of Breyer, his reasoning in this case barely makes a lick of sense. Why would Congress have intended, by its silence, for federal courts to ignore common-law precedent in favor of holdings by subsequent federal courts that subverted common-law precedent? In essence, Breyer is suggesting that Congress was asking the federal courts to figure it out themselves and then subsequent rulings should rely upon precedent established after the federal criminal statutes were enacted, i.e., Breyer thinks that more recent federal precedent should trump common-law precedent established before the federal criminal statutes were drafted by Congress.