Beecham v. United States, 511 U.S. 368 (1994)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 93-445. Argued March 21, 1994—Decided May 16, 1994*

Petitioners Beecham and Jones were each convicted of violating 18 U. S. C.

922(g), which makes it unlawful for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. Title 18 U. S. C. 921(a)(20) qualifies the definition of "conviction": "What constitutes a conviction [is] determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held," ibid. (choice-of-law clause), and "[a]ny conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction . . . ," ibid. (exemption clause). The respective District Courts decided that Beecham's and Jones' prior federal convictions could not be counted because petitioners' civil rights had been restored under state law. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that state restoration of civil rights could not undo the federal disability flowing from a federal conviction.

Held: Petitioners can take advantage of 921(a)(20) only if their civil rights have been restored under federal law, the law of the jurisdiction where the earlier proceedings were held. The choice-of-law clause is logically read to apply to the exemption clause. The inquiry throughout the statutory scheme is whether the person has a qualifying conviction on his record. The choice-of-law clause defines the rule for determining what constitutes a conviction. Asking, under the exemption clause, whether a person's civil rights have been restored is just one step in determining whether something should "be considered a conviction," a determination that, by the terms of the choice-of-law clause, is governed by the law of the convicting jurisdiction. That the other three items listed in the exemption clause are either always or almost always done by the jurisdiction of conviction also counsels in favor of interpreting civil rights restoration as possessing the same attribute. This statutory structure rebuts the arguments used by other Circuits to support their conclusion that the two clauses should be read separately. Moreover, even if there is no federal law procedure for restoring civil rights to federal felons, nothing in 921(a)(20) supports the assumption that

*Together with Jones v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court (see this Court's Rule 12.2).

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