United States v. Freed – Case Brief
United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601, 91 S. Ct. 1112, 28 L. Ed. 2d 356 (1971).
Facts: Freed (D) and other defendants were indicted for possession of unregistered hand grenades in violation of a federal law that made it made it unlawful for anyone to “receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him.” Freed claimed that he did not know of the obligation to register the hand grenades and therefore did not have the required specific intent to possess the unregistered weapons. The district court dismissed the indictments on the grounds that the failure to allege scienter for the crime was violative of due process and the government appealed.
Issue: Is a statute that imposes criminal liability for possession of unregistered weapons, without regard to whether a defendant knew of the requirement to register, unconstitutional for lack of due process?
Holding and Rule (Douglass): No. The imposition of criminal liability for possession of unregistered weapons, without regard to whether a defendant knew of the requirement to register, is not violative of due process.
The federal law in question prohibits an individual from receiving or possessing a firearm not registered to him. This statute is a regulatory measure made in the interest of public safety and is premised on the idea that possession of hand grenades in itself is not a safe, innocent activity. A reasonable person would likely suspect that possession of hand grenades is illegal. Since this activity is not innocent and since the statute is regulatory, no specific intent is required. The defendant’s mere knowledge that he possessed the unregistered hand grenades is sufficient to sustain a conviction.
Concurring (Brennan): The mens rea requirement is a rule, rather than an exception, to Anglo-American law. This requirement is universal and persistent and is generally required. A clear Congressional intent is needed to discard the mens rea requirement. I think it is reasonable to conclude that Congress dispensed with the requirement of intent in this case.
Notes: The court distinguishes between activity that would seem unlawful to the average citizen and activity that is in itself harmless. For example – Lambert v. California involved a law that made it a crime to remain in Los Angeles for more than five days without registering if a person had been convicted of a felony. That law was held unconstitutional because one’s presence in Los Angeles is not in itself something that would seem to be unlawful to the average citizen.
See DPP v Majewski for a British criminal law case brief in which the House of Lords held that voluntary intoxication is not a valid defense to general intent crimes.