Thursday, June 20, 2019

Hate Crimes Prosecution for Assault at Work Doesn’t Violate Commerce Clause

US v. Hill: Hill worked in an Amazon fulfillment center in Virginia along with Tibbs. One day in 2015, Hill attacked Tibbs without provocation, “repeatedly punching him in the face.” Hill told an investigator for Amazon and local police that he assaulted Tibbs because Tibbs was gay, that Tibbs “disrespected because he is a homosexual” and that he “does not like homosexuals, so I punched [Tibbs].” The assault required the shutdown of their area at the center for about 45 minutes, but “the performance of the fulfillment center as a whole during the shift in which the incident took place was in-line with its performance during other shifts.” Hill was initially charged in state court with misdemeanor assault, but the prosecutor asked the Government to take up the prosecution as a hate crime under federal law because Virginia’s hate crimes statute does not include sexual orientation.

The Government took the case and Hill was charged under 18 USC 249(a)(2) with causing bodily injury to Tibbs due to his sexual orientation and that “interfere[d] with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim [was] engaged at the time of the conduct.” Hill was convicted by a jury, but moved for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to him. The district court agreed, holding that in this case the application of the hate crimes statute exceeded Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause because it was not regulating activity that substantially affects interstate commerce.

A divided Fourth Circuit reversed. The court held that under the Supreme Court’s current Commerce Clause analysis the prosecution in this case did not exceed Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause. That is because the assault happened at work, in the context of commercial activity that clearly falls within the scope of the Commerce Clause. “Importantly,” the court held, “Congress may regulate violent conduct interfering with interstate commerce even when the conduct itself has a ‘minimal’ effect on such commerce,” analogizing to prosecutions for arson and under the Hobbs Act. In other words, it didn’t matter that Amazon’s operations weren’t impacted by the assault. The court also noted that unlike statutes the Supreme Court struck down in Morrison and Lopez, the statute here included a clear jurisdictional hook. The court rejected the argument that a conviction in this case would allow Congress to “regulate all workplace conduct” or that “it can intrude into private homes” because in this case the assault “interfered with ongoing commercial activity.” It’s decision “in no way usurps the State’s authority to regulate violent crimes – including hate crimes – unrelated to ongoing interstate commerce.”

Judge Agee dissented, arguing that the statute was not sufficiently limited to comply with the Commerce Clause.

Assault With Intent to Murder is ACCA Violent Felony

US v. Battle: Battle pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Prior to that conviction he had sustained a conviction in Maryland for assault with intent to murder, along with two convictions for distributing drugs. As a result, when he was sentenced in 2011 he was sentenced to 180 months in prison under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  After Johnson, he received permission to file a second or successive 2255 motion and argued that the assault conviction was no longer a violent felony for ACCA purposes. The district court denied the motion.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of Battle’s 2255 motion, concluding that assault with intent to murder is a violent felony. Noting that the offense required a “specific intent to bring about the death of the assault victim,” the court held that such an assault requires the level of violent force necessary to be a violent felony. It rejected Battle’s argument that a conviction could be had via indirect force (such as via poisoning), relying once again on the Supreme Court’s Castleman decision. The court also noted that Battle could not point to any Maryland state cases where such an assault was committed by omission.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

South Carolina Domestic Assault Is ACCA Violent Felony

US v. Drummond: Drummond was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act. His ACCA status was triggered by three prior domestic violence convictions in South Carolina, one for third offense criminal domestic violence (CDV) and two for CDV of a “high and aggravated nature.” Drummond argued that those offenses did not require the use of force required under Johnson to qualify as violent felonies, but the district court disagreed.

On appeal, a divided Fourth Circuit affirmed Drummond’s sentence. CDV (regular or aggravated) is defined by statute to requires causing “physical harm or injury” or “offer[ing] or attempt[ing]” to do so “with apparent present ability under circumstances reasonably creating fear of imminent peril.” The court concluded that “this minimal unlawful conduct satisfies” ACCA standards and rejected Drummond’s argument that CDV was similar to South Carolina assault and battery, which the court has already concluded doesn’t meet ACCA standards. The court noted that while assault and battery arises out of common law, CDV has a statutory definition and “Does not reference nor rely upon South Carolina’s definition of assault” which “can be committed in the absence of physical injury, actual or threatened.” It is the “physical harm-or-injury element” that “distinguishes CDV from common-law assault.”

Judge Floyd dissented, arguing that the majority had misread State v. LaCoste, 553 S.E.2d 464 (S.C. Ct. App. 2001), which by his reading supports the conclusion that the common-law definition of assault has some bearing on the elements of CDV, even if LaCoste “does not speak with perfect clarity on the issue at hand.”