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United States v. Viola

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

July 26, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
PAUL JOSEPH VIOLA

          WHITEHURST MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM ORDER

          S. MAURICE HICKS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Currently before the Court is the United States' Motion in Limine and Incorporated Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Introduction of “Mistake of Fact” Evidence and To Issuance of Special Jury Instructions (Record Document 82). The defense opposes this motion (Record Document 83). For the reasons set forth below, the United States' motion is GRANTED.

         The defendant, Paul Joseph Viola (“Viola”), is charged in a four count Indictment with two counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. See Record Document 62. Viola does not dispute that he pled guilty to a felony in the 18th District Judicial Court in the Parish of Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. See Record Document 83 at 1. He was placed on probation and successfully completed probation. See id. On or about March 18th, 2011, Viola received a “Verification of First Offender Pardon” letter issued by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. See id., Exhibit A. The letter states that as of March 14th, 2011, Viola had discharged his sentence for his offense and that all rights of citizenship and franchise are restored in Louisiana. See id. The letter further provides:

The right to receive, possess, or transport a firearm may not be restored unless all legal provisions are met and should be determined through the local law enforcement agency.

Id.

         In March 2016, Viola received a second “Verification of First Offender Pardon” letter issued by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. See id., Exhibit B. This second letter states that as of March 14th, 2011, Viola had discharged his sentence for his offense and that all rights of citizenship and franchise are restored in Louisiana. See id. The letter further provides:

The right to receive, possess, or transport a firearm may not be restored unless all legal provisions (refer to La. R.S. 14:95.1) are met. Any questions regarding these legal provisions should be directed to your attorney.

Id.

         According to defense counsel, Viola intends to introduce these letters and other evidence at trial to show that he did what the March 2011 letter instructed him to do, that is, he checked with a local law enforcement agency to see if he could possess a gun and hunt. See Record Document 83 at 2. Defense counsel submits that the evidence at trial will show that not only Viola, but others on his behalf double checked with the local law enforcement agency to see if it was permissible for Viola to possess a firearm and hunt. See id. Defense counsel maintains that the evidence at trial will demonstrate that Viola “took the affirmative step of following the instructions in the letter, and sought out advice from a local law enforcement agency, and was told that he could possess a firearm.” Id. at 3.

         The Government has moved to exclude the evidence relating to the letters and argues that special jury instructions regarding the letters and/or a good faith or mistake of fact/mistake of law defense are inappropriate. See Record Document 82 at 1. The Government submits that evidence relating to the letter “is irrelevant and thus inadmissible, as it tends to prove, at most, an issue that is not properly before the jury.” Id.

         The first element of Fifth Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction No. 2.43D provides: “First: That the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm [or ammunition] as charged.”[1] In U.S. v. Schmidt, 487 F.3d 253 (5th Cir. 2007), the court stated that a conviction under Section 922(g)(1) requires proof that the defendant knew that he had possessed a firearm or ammunition. See id. at 254; see also U.S. v. Frazier, 983 F.2d 232 (5th Cir. 1993) (“An offense under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) is a general intent crime, requiring no proof of scienter. The government must prove that the defendant knowingly received a firearm, not that he knew it was unlawful to receive it or that he knew the firearm had traveled in interstate commerce.”). There is no dispute that Viola possessed both the firearms and the ammunition. Viola maintains that he believed, based upon advice from local law enforcement, it was lawful for him to possess the firearms and ammunition.

         Viola contends that this is a mistake of fact case. See Record Document 83 at 5. This Court disagrees and finds that this is not a case of mistake of fact; rather, it is a case of mistake of law. As explained in U.S. v. Barker, 546 F.2d 940(D.C. Cir. 1976):

It is a fundamental tenet of criminal law that an honest mistake of fact negatives criminal intent, when a defendant's acts would be lawful if the facts were as he supposed them to be. A mistake of law, on the other hand, generally will not excuse the commission of an offense. A defendant's error as to his authority to engage in particular activity, if based upon a mistaken view of legal requirements (or ignorance thereof), is a mistake of law. Typically, the fact that he relied upon the erroneous ...

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