More on Federal Criminal Jurisdiction and the "Interstate Commerce" Clause

On January 9, 2010, we discussed what is necessary for the federal government to prosecute crimes - specifically that the crime have an effect on “interstate commerce.” This interstate commence requirement is in play in the Federal District Court here in Cleveland, Ohio - in a deadly arson case where 9 people died in a house fire. It is unusual for federal prosecutors to prosecute arson cases - even ones that involve an arson where people have died. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is currently prosecuting (and is in trial against) a man who, they allege, intentionally set a fire that killed nine people. If they are successful in convincing a jury that he intentionally set the fire, they will seek (in a separate phase of the proceedings) the death penalty.

However, just proving that the defendant intentionally set the fire will not be enough for a conviction. The Government will also have to prove that the crime affected "interstate commence." So, how does a fire in a building in Cleveland, Ohio affect interstate commence? The building was located in Cleveland. The defendant lived in Cleveland, and all of the people who died lived in Cleveland. No one crossed state lines, and the things that were used to start the fire were all obtained in the Cleveland area. Nevertheless, this "interstate commerce" issue has already been decided by the United States Supreme Court - where they held that a fire in a 2-unit apartment building affected interstate commence because "the rental of real estate is unquestionably" an activity affecting interstate commerce. The fact that the residence in question was “rented” was enough to trigger the application of the "interstate commence" clause of the US Constitution. So, it may not be too difficult for the Government to prove that a rental house where 9 people were residing or staying has an affect on interstate commence.

Depending on the circumstances, the federal courts are often willing to expand the coverage of the "interstate commence" clause. In the next couple of years, there will be a number of big fights in the federal courts over what does or does not affect "interstate commerce" - including whether or not parts or all of the so-called ObamaCare health law is constitutionally related (enough) to "interstate commence." Stay tuned.