United States: Supreme Court Rejects Narrow Definition of Domestic Violence
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 4:45 PM

In a unanimous decision in United States v. Castleman, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision to dismiss the indictment of a man under a federal law prohibiting perpetrators of domestic violence from owning or possessing firearms. In the opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court held that any offensive touching or minor assault, including "pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting," is enough to constitute domestic violence under federal law and disqualify offenders from owning guns. This interpretation of domestic violence is aligned with common law defintions of assault and battery and is far more inclusive than traditional definitions of the crime, which require proof of physical force or serious injury. 

The respondent in this case, James Alvin Castleman, was charged with violating federal law by possessing and selling firearms after pleading guilty to a state misdemeanor domestic violence charge. Castleman argued that his actions did not constitute domestic violence under federal law because the state law did not not require proof of the use of physical force. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and concluded that while lighter physical injury or abuse may not fit commonly held notions of "violence," it qualifies as domestic violence under federal law, particularly where the accumulation of such injuries over time allows one partner to exert control over the other.

Compiled from: Cassens Weiss, Debra,  Physical Force Gets Expansive Meaning in SCOTUS Interpretation of Domestic-Violence Gun BanABA Journal (March 26, 2014); Liptak, Adam, Sweeping Ruling on Domestic Violence, New York Times (March 26, 2014).