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Dixon v. United States

United States Supreme Court
548 U.S. 1 (2006)


Rule of Law

Under federal law, if a defendant raises the defense of duress, the defendant bears the burden of proving duress.


Facts

Keshia Dixon (defendant) attended two gun shows and purchased multiple firearms. In acquiring the guns, Dixon provided incorrect address information and lied about being under indictment for a felony. Dixon was convicted of (1) receiving a firearm while under indictment for a felony under 18 U.S.C. § 922(n) and (2) making false statements to obtain a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6). At trial, Dixon admitted that she knowingly provided false information concerning her address and indictment status. Dixon also admitted that she knew lying about her indictment status was a crime. Dixon raised the defense of duress, claiming that her boyfriend threatened to kill Dixon or harm her children if she did not acquire the guns for him. The court of appeals affirmed Dixon’s convictions. Dixon appealed to the United States Supreme Court on the ground that the trial court erred by placing the burden on Dixon to prove duress by a preponderance of the evidence. According to Dixon, once the defense of duress is raised, the government bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting under duress. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue

Under federal law, if a defendant raises the defense of duress, does the defendant bear the burden of proving duress?

Holding and Reasoning (Stevens, J.)

Yes. Under federal law, if a defendant raises the defense of duress, the defendant bears the burden of proving duress. The government bears the burden of proving all elements of the charged offense, including the applicable mens rea, beyond a reasonable doubt. Duress is an affirmative defense that allows a defendant to avoid liability, because necessity or coercive conditions negate a finding of guilt. This defense allows the avoidance of liability, despite the fact that all elements of the offense are satisfied. The defense does not act by negating the mens rea element. As the defense does not act by negating the mens rea element, the government is not required to prove a lack of duress to meet its burden of proof. Here, in arguing that the government bears the burden to prove a lack of duress, Dixon relies on precedent from Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469 (1895). In Davis, the United States Supreme Court held that the government bore the burden of proving the defendant’s sanity as a factor relevant to the mens rea required for murder. However, reliance on that precedent is misplaced, because it is specific to murder. Federal crimes are created only by statute, and therefore the intent of Congress must be considered in relation to each specific offense. At common law, the defendant bears the burden of proving duress. When Congress codified the crimes involved in this case, it seems likely that Congress assumed a similar approach would be used in applying duress to these offenses. Dixon also relies on the Model Penal Code (MPC), which places the burden on the prosecution to show a lack of duress. There is no evidence, however, that Congress intended to adopt the MPC approach to duress. The offenses Dixon is charged with require knowing and willful conduct. The government’s burden on these elements was satisfied when Dixon testified that she knowingly provided false information and knew that doing so was a crime. The trial court correctly required Dixon to prove duress by a preponderance of the evidence. The decision of the court of appeals is affirmed.

Concurrence (Alito, J.)

The majority opinion is correct, but it should not be read to say that the burden of proof of duress varies from offense to offense. There is no evidence that Congress consciously considers the burden of defenses each time it enacts a new federal criminal statute. It is presumed that Congress intended for duress to be a defense as it was at common law, with the burden of proof falling on the defendant.

Concurrence (Kennedy, J.)

For purposes of determining congressional intent, it is assumed that Congress acts with knowledge of background legal principles from common law. Individual sources, such as the MPC, can be considered in determining intent. However, those sources are only indicative if they reflect a legal trend. In this case, there is nothing to suggest Congress intended to deviate from the common-law approach to duress.

Dissent (Breyer, J.)

Although it is the defendant’s burden to present evidence on the defense of duress, the burden of persuasion should remain with the prosecution. Congressional intent should not be evaluated based on the legal trends in place at the time the law is enacted. If Congress is silent on a burden of persuasion, the better practice is to assume that Congress intended for courts to continually develop and apply rules governing the application of affirmative defenses. Under this approach, the burden of persuasion for duress best lies with the prosecution.