Beecham v. United States
511 U.S. 368 (1994)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1993

Syllabus

BEECHAM v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

No. 93-445. Argued March 21, 1994-Decided May 16, 1994*

Petitioners Beecham and Jones were each convicted of violating 18 U. S. C. § 922(g), which makes it unlawful for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. Title 18 U. S. C. § 921 (a)(20) qualifies the definition of "conviction"; "What constitutes a conviction [is] determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held," ibid. (choice-of-Iaw clause), and "[a]ny conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction ... ," ibid. (exemption clause). The respective District Courts decided that Beecham's and Jones' prior federal convictions could not be counted because petitioners' civil rights had been restored under state law. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that state restoration of civil rights could not undo the federal disability flowing from a federal conviction.

Held: Petitioners can take advantage of § 921(a)(20) only if their civil rights have been restored under federal law, the law of the jurisdiction where the earlier proceedings were held. The choice-of-Iaw clause is logically read to apply to the exemption clause. The inquiry throughout the statutory scheme is whether the person has a qualifying conviction on his record. The choice-of-Iaw clause defines the rule for determining what constitutes a conviction. Asking, under the exemption clause, whether a person's civil rights have been restored is just one step in determining whether something should "be considered a conviction," a determination that, by the terms of the choice-of-Iaw clause, is governed by the law of the convicting jurisdiction. That the other three items listed in the exemption clause are either always or almost always done by the jurisdiction of conviction also counsels in favor of interpreting civil rights restoration as possessing the same attribute. This statutory structure rebuts the arguments used by other Circuits to support their conclusion that the two clauses should be read separately. Moreover, even if there is no federal law procedure for restoring civil rights to federal felons, nothing in § 921(a)(20) supports the assumption that

*Together with Jones v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court (see this Court's Rule 12.2).


369

Congress intended all felons to have access to all the procedures specified in the exemption clause, especially because there are many States that do not restore civil rights, either. Because the statutory language is unambiguous, the rule of lenity is inapplicable. See Chapman v. United States, 500 U. S. 453, 463-464. Pp.370-374.

993 F.2d 1539 (first case) and 993 F.2d 1131 (second case), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Nathan Lewin argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Mathew S. Nosanchuk and R. Russell Stobbs.

Edward C. DuMont argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and John F. De Pue.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. Today we construe three provisions of the federal firearms statutes:

"It shall be unlawful for any person who has been convicted ... [of] a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year ... [to possess] any firearm .... " 18 U. S. C. § 922(g).

"What constitutes a conviction ... shall be determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held." § 921(a)(20) (the choice-oflaw clause).

"Any conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction .... " Ibid. (the exemption clause).

The question before us is which jurisdiction's law is to be considered in determining whether a felon "has had civil rights restored" for a prior federal conviction.


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Full Text of Opinion

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