Readers know that federal criminal cases are a large portion of our work, so we pay attention to the laws, reported decisions and news stories about how the “feds” sometimes brings really unfortunate criminal cases. This past Monday, the United States Supreme Court reversed yet another unfortunate federal criminal case, because what the Defendant did was not even a federal crime. The case is a perfect example of how some federal prosecutors will take even the smallest case and try to”make a federal case out of something.” The case is Bond v. United States, and can be read here.
A Pennsylvania woman learned that her husband had impregnated her former best friend. The woman put some caustic chemicals on the pregnant woman’s door handle. The victim was slightly burned on her hand, which she remedied by washing. Sounds like a state law case, right? Wrong! Some ambitious federal prosecutors brought a federal case against the Defendant for violating a 1998 statute that was designed to implement US treaty obligations concerning chemical weapons. A divided Supreme Court reduced the scope of this statute. The majority ruled that Congress could not have intended to make it a federal crime – with global implications – for a woman to try to poison her husband’s lover.
Although the Defendant may have violated a number of state laws, local prosecutors only went after her for harassing telephone calls and letters, and refused to accuse her of assault. Then the feds barged in. She worked out a deal by which she pleaded guilty to the federal crime of using a “chemical weapon,” on condition that she could later challenge the prosecution. Fortunately for her, the legal team representing the Defendant convinced the Supreme Court that the law did not even apply to what she did.
The case had attracted notice because it seemed to pose the ultimate question of just how far Congress could go, in regulating activity entirely inside the U.S., when it was enacting a law to carry out a global obligation that the federal government had assumed under a treaty. The Court dodged that issue, invoking the traditional practice of avoiding constitutional issues if not necessary to a decision, and chose to deal only with the question of whether Congress had meant to pass a law that was so nearly limitless that it would reach “a purely local crime” growing out of “romantic jealousy.”
Again, I never cease to be amazed at how federal prosecutors will waste tax dollars using unique federal laws in going after what are really local crimes. Anyone facing such a situation needs a legal team willing to fight, that much is for certain.