Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Court: People convicted overseas can still own gun


Court: People convicted overseas can still own gun

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that people convicted of a crime overseas may own a gun in the United States.

In a 5-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of Gary Sherwood Small of Pennsylvania. The court reasoned that U.S. law, which prohibits felons who have been convicted in "any court" from owning guns, applies only to domestic crimes.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, said interpreting the law broadly to apply to foreign convictions would be unfair to defendants because procedural protections are often less in international courts. If Congress intended foreign convictions to apply, they can rewrite the law to specifically say so, he said. (Related: Court opinion in case)

"We have no reason to believe that Congress considered the added enforcement advantages flowing from inclusion of foreign crimes, weighing them against, say, the potential unfairness of preventing those with inapt foreign convictions from possessing guns," Breyer wrote.

He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Congress intended for foreign convictions to apply. "Any" court literally means any court, he wrote.

"Read naturally, the word 'any' has an expansive meaning, that is, 'one or some indiscriminately of whatever kind,'" Thomas said.

He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.

Small had answered "no" to the felony conviction question on a federal form when he bought a handgun in 1998, a few days after he was paroled from a Japanese prison for violating weapons laws in that country.

Small was indicted in 2000 for lying on the form and for illegally owning two pistols and 335 rounds of ammunition. He later entered a conditional guilty plea pending the outcome of this case.

The Bush administration had asked the court to apply the statute to foreign convictions.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in deciding the case, which was heard in November when he was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.

The case is Small v. United States, 03-750.

Also on Tuesday, the court ruled people who cheat foreign governments of tax revenue can be prosecuted under U.S. law for wire fraud. In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the fraud convictions for three men accused of sneaking thousands of cases of whisky, vodka and rum into Canada from the United States and avoiding millions of dollars in Canadian taxes.

Canada did not pursue the trio for tax evasion, but American prosecutors did and the three were sentenced to prison.

``It may seem an odd use of the federal government's resources to prosecute a U.S. citizen for smuggling cheap liquor into Canada,'' Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. ``But the broad language of the wire fraud statute says so.''