U.S. Supreme Court

LEWIS v. UNITED STATES, 445 U.S. 55 (1980)


No. 78-1595.

Argued January 7, 1980.
Decided February 27, 1980.


Even though petitioner's extant prior state-court felony conviction may be subject to collateral attack under Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 , it could properly be used as a predicate for his subsequent conviction for possession of a firearm in violation of 1202 (a) (1) of Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Pp. 60-68.

(a) The plain meaning of 1202 (a) (1)'s sweeping language proscribing the possession of firearms by any person who "has been convicted by a court of the United States or of a State . . . of a felony," is that the fact of a felony conviction imposes firearm disability until the conviction is vacated or the felon is relieved of his disability by some affirmative action. Other provisions of the statute demonstrate and reinforce its broad sweep, and there is nothing in 1202 (a) (1)'s legislative history to suggest that Congress was willing to allow a defendant to question the validity of his prior conviction as a defense to a charge under 1202 (a) (1). Moreover, the fact that there are remedies available to a convicted felon — removal of the firearm disability by a qualifying pardon or the Secretary of the Treasury's consent, as specified in the Act, or a challenge to the prior conviction in an appropriate court proceeding — suggests that Congress intended that the defendant clear his status before obtaining a firearm, thereby fulfilling Congress' purpose to keep firearms away from persons classified as potentially irresponsible and dangerous. Pp. 60-65.

(b) The firearm regulatory scheme at issue here is consonant with the concept of equal protection embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, since Congress could rationally conclude that any felony conviction, even an allegedly invalid one, is a sufficient basis on which to prohibit the possession of a firearm. And use of an uncounseled felony conviction as the basis for imposing a civil firearms disability, enforceable by criminal sanction, is not inconsistent with Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109 ; United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443 ; and Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473 . Pp. 65-67.

591 F.2d 978, affirmed. [445 U.S. 55, 56] 

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and STEWART, WHITE, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 68.

Andrew W. Wood argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Neal P. Rutledge.

Andrew J. Levander argued the cause pro hac vice for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General McCree, Assistant Attorney General Heymann, Deputy Solicitor General Frey, Jerome M. Feit, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

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