The question in the title of this post is prompted by the dire claims appearing in Justice Alito’s dissent in Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here). At the start of his dissent, Justice Alito frets that the Court’s ruling in Rehaif “will create a mountain of problems with respect to the thousands of prisoners currently serving terms for §922(g) convictions” and that “[a]pplications for relief by federal prisoners sentenced under §922(g) will swamp the lower courts.” At the end of his dissent, he returns to this lament (with cites removed):
Although the majority presents its decision as modest, its practical effects will be far reaching and cannot be ignored. Tens of thousands of prisoners are currently serving sentences for violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). It is true that many pleaded guilty, and for most direct review is over. Nevertheless, every one of those prisoners will be able to seek relief by one route or another. Those for whom direct review has not ended will likely be entitled to a new trial. Others may move to have their convictions vacated under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, and those within the statute of limitations will be entitled to relief if they can show that they are actually innocent of violating §922(g), which will be the case if they did not know that they fell into one of the categories of persons to whom the offense applies. If a prisoner asserts that he lacked that knowledge and therefore was actually innocent, the district courts, in a great many cases, may be required to hold a hearing, order that the prisoner be brought to court from a distant place of confinement, and make a credibility determination as to the prisoner’s subjective mental state at the time of the crime, which may have occurred years in the past. This will create a substantial burden on lower courts, who are once again left to clean up the mess the Court leaves in its wake as it moves on to the next statute in need of “fixing.”…
The majority today opens the gates to a flood of litigation that is sure to burden the lower courts with claims for relief in a host of cases where there is no basis for doubting the defendant’s knowledge.
Though I am not sure that the litigation following the Court’s decision in Rehaif will amount to a flood, I am sure that it will be interesting to see just how this ruling echoes through the lower courts in the weeks and months ahead.