[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday in Henderson v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials] that individuals convicted of felonies may transfer firearms to independent third parties or have them sold. The court reversed the decision [opinion, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website], which ruled that through constructive possession [Cornell LII backgrounder], a felon might still exert control over those firearms. In its ruling, the court rejected the government’s main premise based on the theory of “unclean hands,” which proscribes equitable relief when an individual’s misconduct has “immediate and necessary relation to the equity that he seeks,” and concluded that the prohibition on firearm possession did not extend to firearm transfers. The court did not do away with the doctrine completely, however, as the reviewing court is permitted to “seek certain assurances” that may still “fail to provide adequate safeguard, [in which case] a court should then disapprove of the transfer.” In ruling, the court ultimately held that transfer of firearms in accordance with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g) [text] does not violate 18 USC § 922(g)(1) [text], which makes it unlawful for convicted felons to possess firearms.
The petitioner in the case, Tony Henderson, was arrested for a felony offense in 2006 and turned over his collection of firearms to federal agents as a condition of his release. The collection of guns includes a number of valuable items and antiques. Beginning in 2008, Henderson requested that the court transfer ownership of his weapons to his wife or a third party that agreed to pay for them, on the basis that he would not possess a firearm. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in October to determine, “whether [a felony] conviction prevents a court under Rule 41(g) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or under general equity principles from ordering that the government (1) transfer non-contraband firearms to an unrelated third party to whom the defendant has sold all his property interests or (2) sell the firearms for the benefit of the defendant.” The Third, Sixth, Eighth and Eleventh Circuits bar such sales, while the Second, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits allow them. The Court heard [JURIST report] oral argument in February.