Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Commerce Clause Covers Cockfighting; DIY Wikipedia Research from Juror Requires Reversal

US v. Lawson and US v. Gibert: These two cases involve multiple prosecutions and convictions under the federal statute criminalizing "animal fighting venture[s]" (in this case, cockfighting).  Lawson and his codefendants went to trial, while Gibert and codefendants entered guilty pleas.  Although the cases were argued together, the court entered separate opinions at the same time due to their "distinct legal issues."

Gibert (and his codefendants) pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate 7 USC 2156, which prohibits (among other things) "sponsor[ing] or exhibit[ing] an animal in an animal fighting venture."  As part of a plea agreement, he reserved the right to challenged the constitutionality of the statute on appeal.  He did so on two grounds, that the statute exceeds Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause and that, to survive scrutiny, the statute must be read to require the Government to prove that the defendant knew the animal fighting venture was "in or affected interstate commerce."  The Fourth Circuit rejected both arguments.  As to the Commerce Clause argument, the court noted that section 2156 (from the Animal Welfare Act) is part of a "comprehensive regulatory scheme" and quoted liberally from the legislative history leading to its enactment.  The court concluded that "we have no difficulty concluding that Congress acted within the limitations established by the Commerce Clause."  Specifically, the court found that the statute had the required nexus to interstate commerce.  As to the scienter argument, the court concluded that similar statutes based on the interstate nexus do not require the defendant's knowledge and neither does this one.

Lawson and many codefendants went to trial and were convicted on multiple counts relating to the cockfighting operation.  On appeal, he raised several issues, most of which the Fourth Circuit rejected.  First, it relied on Gibert to reject Lawson's argument that the statute violated the Commerce Clause.  Second, the court rejected Lawson's argument that because the Government had to prove an additional element during prosecutions in districts where animal fighting was legal (no states and only a few territories meet that criterion) it violated equal protection.  Third, the court concluded that the district court did not clearly abuse its discretion to deny Lawson's request for a trial separate from his codefendants. 

The court also rejected two arguments raised by four of Lawson's codefendants (referred to collectively as Dyal) who were convicted of conspiracy to engage in an illegal gambling business and operating an illegal gambling business.  First, the court concluded that the district court did not err by failing to instruct the jury that the Government must prove that Dyal knew their conduct was illegal under state law and that they weren't operating in good faith.  Second, the court concluded that the district court did not err by instructing the jury that the state gambling statute at issue was violated when "a person pays a fee to enter a contest of skill and the winnings depend on the number of entries."

However, the court did vacate Lawson's convictions, due to juror misconduct.  During deliberations, one of the jurors did some research on Wikipedia (really!) on the meaning of "sponsorship" (one of the elements of the offenses) and brought the fruits of his/her labor into the jury room.  Applying a presumption of prejudice due to the juror's DIY research, the court concluded that the Government could not rebut that presumption.  As a result, the convictions of the defendants convicted under AWA were vacated, although the conspiracy counts related to gambling (with two exceptions) were not.

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