Supreme Court: "Local" Crime Is for the States to Punish

SCOTUS holds that a federal law implementing a treaty on chemical warfare doesn't apply to simple assault.

The U.S. Supreme Court has reinforced the principle that states, rather than the federal government, should be left to prosecute local crime. In the case in question, Bond v. U.S., it ruled that a federal law on chemical weapons doesn’t apply to one person’s use of skin irritants against another. (572 U. S. ____ (2014).)

The case involved a defendant who learned that her husband had impregnated her best friend. The defendant, a microbiologist, stole an arsenic-based compound from her employer and got another chemical (one commonly used in photography) online. She then, over several months, made many trips to her former friend’s home. During these visits, she would spread the chemicals on the ex-friend’s car door, mailbox, and door knob. She didn’t intend to kill or seriously injure her friend, and the only injury the friend sustained was a thumb burn.

Federal prosecutors charged the defendant with a law that imposes severe penalties for possession or use of “any chemical weapon.” (18 U. S. C. §229(a)(1).) Congress had enacted the law in order to implement an international treaty regarding chemical warfare.

The Supreme Court explained that punishment of “local criminal activity”—for example, fistfights, DUIs, and even most homicides—has traditionally been the province of state government. (See State vs. Federal Prosecution.) It said that, in order to regulate criminal activity that’s usually left to the states, Congress must show a clear intent that it intended to do so. And when it came to the chemical weapons law, Congress didn’t show that intent.

The Court noted that the chemical weapons law was intended to cover incidents of war and terrorism. The majority refused to read the statute the way federal prosecutors wanted it to, which would mean that virtually any kind of chemical—for example, vinegar used to kill a goldfish—could constitute a weapon under the law. The Court noted that average person wouldn’t consider Bond’s behavior to constitute deployment of chemical weapons. Likewise, the chemicals she used weren’t the kinds that Congress envisioned when implementing the treaty. The bottom line: State law is available to prosecute behavior like the defendant’s (assault), and federal law didn’t stretch far enough to reach her.