Government loses 9-0, with Kagan writing the decision in a property and gun rights case where the property was guns.
The opinion is short and lays out the key details, so here it is verbatim. This applies directly to a very narrow set of circumstances, but I think, or hope, it is significant in that it beats back some serious federal overreach simply because "guns!".
(Note: I added a couple paragraph breaks that were not in the original formatting so it is a little less tedious to read).
After being charged with the felony offense of distributing marijuana, petitioner Tony Henderson was required as a condition of his bail to turn over firearms that he lawfully owned. Henderson ultimately pleaded guilty, and, as a felon, was prohibited under 18 U. S. C. §922(g) from possessing his (or any other) firearms. Henderson therefore asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had custody of his firearms, to transfer them to his friend. But the agency refused to do so. Henderson then filed a motion in federal district court seeking to transfer his firearms, but the court denied the motion on the ground that Henderson’s requested transfer would give him constructive possession of the firearms in violation of §922(g). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Held: A court-ordered transfer of a felon’s lawfully owned firearms from Government custody to a third party is not barred by §922(g) if the court is satisfied that the recipient will not give the felon control over the firearms, so that he could either use them or direct their use. Federal courts have equitable authority to order law enforcement to return property obtained during the course of a criminal proceeding to its rightful owner. Section 922(g), however, bars a court from ordering guns returned to a felon-owner like Henderson, because that would place the owner in violation of the law. And because §922(g)bans constructive as well as actual possession, it also prevents a court from ordering the transfer of a felon’s guns to someone willing to give the felon access to them or to accede to the felon’s instructions about their future use.
The Government goes further, arguing that §922(g) prevents all transfers to a third party, no matter how independent of the felon’s influence, unless that recipient is a licensed firearms dealer or other third party who will sell the guns on the open market. But that view conflates possession, which §922(g) prohibits, with an owner’s right merely to alienate his property, which it does not. After all, the Government’s reading of §922(g) would prohibit a felon from disposing of his firearms even when he would lack any control over and thus not possess them before, during, or after the disposition. That reading would also extend §922(g)’s scope far beyond its purpose; preventing a felon like Henderson from disposing of his firearms, even in ways that guarantee he never uses them again, does nothing to advance the statute’s goal of keeping firearms away from felons.
Finally, the Government’s insistence that a felon cannot select a third-party recipient over whom he exercises no influence fits poorly with its concession that a felon may select a firearms dealer or third party to sell his guns. The Government’s reading of §922(g) is thus overbroad.
Accordingly, a court may approve the transfer of a felon’s guns consistently with §922(g) if, but only if, the recipient will not grant the felon control over those weapons. One way to ensure that result is to order that the guns be turned over to a firearms dealer, himself independent of the felon’s control, for subsequent sale on the open market. But that is not the only option; a court, with proper assurances from the recipient, may also grant a felon’s request to transfer his guns to a person who expects to maintain custody of them. Either way, once a court is satisfied that the transferee will not allow the felon to exert any influence over the firearms, the court has equitable power to accommodate the felon’s transfer request.