US v. Williams (opinion) stole the spotlight amongst last week’s decided cases and for good reason. The court narrowed scope of the PROTECT Act and upheld its basic tenants against first amendment claims. Another case, US v. Ressam, struck me as being particularly interesting.

The facts of Ressam (opinion) aren’t terribly complex. Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the United States through Canada and lied about his identity and the contents of his vehicle. Custom officials located explosives in his spare tire well and he was convicted in relation to a plot to trigger the explosives at Los Angeles International Airport. He was charged with a number of crimes, one of which was “carry[ing] an explosive during the commision of” another felony (lying to customs officials) under 18 USC 844(h)(2).

The Court held that possession ‘during’ a felony is defined in as anything with a ‘temporal link’ to that felony. Put another way, carrying explosives during a felony, related or not, is grounds to trigger a charge under this statute. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Stevens, refuses to add a relational condition to a statue that says simply, “during.” The Court accepted the case because while the Third and Fifth Circuits have refused to add relational conditions, the Ninth Circuit did in this case and the Court was asked to give final judgment to the sudden circuit split.

Justices Scalia and Thomas joined only the first part of the opinion that states:

There is no need to consult dictionary definitions of the word “during” in order to arrive at the conclusion that respondent engaged in the precise conduct described in §844(h)(2) (1994 ed.). The term “during” denotes a temporal link; that is surely the most natural reading of the word as used in the statute. Because respondent’s carrying of the explosives was contemporaneous with his violation of §1001, he carried them “during” that violation.

The Chief Justice and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Souter, Ginsburg, and Alito moved on to discuss the history of the statute and how that further clarified the meaning of the clause. In 1984, the Ninth Circuit interpreted a similar firearms statute to have an implicit relational assumption. Congress added the phrase “in relation to” to the statute soon afterwards. As their argument goes, if Congress had intended the explosives-related statues to mirror the breadth of the gun-related statute, they would have included the “in relation to” clause of the latter. Their evidence is persuasive.

Justice Breyer’s dissent is interesting and he makes several strong, but ultimately irrelevant, points. He opens Section I with this:

My problem with the Court’s interpretation is that it would permit conviction of any individual who legally carries explosives at the time that he engages in a totally unrelated felony. “Explosives,” the statute tells us, includes not only obviously explosive material such as “gunpowders” and “dynamite” but also any “chemical compounds” or “mixture[s]” or “device[s]” whose “ignition by fire, by friction, by concussion” or other means “may cause an explosion.” 18 U. S. C. §844(j). And that definition encompasses such commonplace materials as kerosene, gasoline, or certain fertilizers. Moreover, the “carr[ying]” to which the statute refers includes carrying that is otherwise legal. Further, the statute applies to the carrying of explosives during “any” federal felony, a category that ranges from murder to mail fraud. See §1111 (2000 ed. and Supp. V); §1341 (2000 ed., Supp. V).

His concerns are valid. If I were to commit murder with a lighter in my pocket, I could be convicted of carrying an explosive while committing a felony. Ultimately, however, it seems as though Justice Breyer is ruling against this law because there is a better alternative. He spent very little time, if any, explaining why the majorities interpretation was wrong.


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