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Supreme Court Ruling Allows Certain Convicted Felons to Possess Firearms

When a person is convicted of a felony, there are a number of collateral consequences in addition to the legal penalties of prison, fines, and probation. One of the most notable collateral consequences is the loss of a person’s right to possess a firearm following conviction of a felony. Under both state and federal law, being a felon in possession of a firearm is a felony offense. However, a new ruling by the United States Supreme Court may allow certain convicted felons to regain their constitutional right to bear arms.

In United States v. Reese 12-2025, appellant James Oliver Reese asked a federal appeals court to overturn his conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Reese’s original case began in New Mexico in the early 1990’s when he pleaded no contest to a felony charge of tampering with evidence. He was given a deferred sentence, which he successfully completed. As in Oklahoma, the completion of a deferred sentence ends not in conviction, but in the dismissal of the charge. Nearly a decade later, however, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) served a search warrant at his home and confiscated as many as 30 firearms. Because of his prior felony, Reese was indicted on 24 counts of firearm possession.

Reese argued that he did not have a prior felony–after all, the case had been dismissed. Therefore, because he was not a convicted felony, he was not prohibited from possessing firearms. However, the defendant offered a conditional plea to a single count, saying he would appeal the case to the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

In considering Reese’s case, the appeals court said it needed clarification on the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of New Mexico law. Upon receiving such clarification, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Reese’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm and restored his right to possess guns:

In this appeal James Reese asks us to overturn his conviction for being a felon unlawfully in possession of firearms. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Overturned because someone (like himself) previously convicted of a felony may lawfully possess guns if he “has had civil rights restored.” 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20). To show that he has had his civil rights restored, a defendant in Mr. Reese’s shoes must prove that he enjoys the right to vote, serve on a jury, possess firearms under state law, and hold public office. United States v. Maines, 20 F.3d 1102, 1104 (10th Cir. 1994). From the outset of this appeal, everyone has acknowledged that Mr. Reese enjoys three of these four rights. The only question we have faced is whether Mr. Reese is entitled to hold public office under New Mexico state law. Given the uncertainty of state law on that question, we certified it to the state supreme court.

That court recently returned an answer: at all points relevant to this case Mr. Reese has enjoyed the right to hold public office. See United States v. Reese, No. 33,950, 2014 WL 1716526, at *11 (N.M. May 1, 2014). In light of this guidance, the government acknowledges that Mr. Reese’s federal firearms conviction is unsustainable. So it is we reverse Mr. Reese’s conviction and remand this matter to the district court with instructions to dismiss the 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) charge against him. The mandate shall issue with the entry of this order on the docket.

In other words, if a person convicted of a felony has his or her civil rights restored–for example, following the successful completion of a deferred sentence–his or her right to possess firearms is likewise restored. The court has no authority to pick and choose which rights are restored and which are continued to be prohibited.

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