US v. James Hill, III
UNPUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 3:16-cr-00009-JAG-1 Copies to all parties and the district court/agency. .. [16-4299]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff – Appellant,
JAMES WILLIAM HILL, III,
Defendant – Appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at
Richmond. John A. Gibney, Jr., District Judge. (3:16-cr-00009-JAG-1)
Argued: January 26, 2017
Decided: August 18, 2017
Before SHEDD, AGEE, and WYNN, Circuit Judges.
Reversed and remanded by unpublished opinion. Judge Shedd wrote the opinion, in
which Judge Agee joined. Judge Wynn wrote an opinion dissenting from the basis for
ARGUED: Vikram Swaruup, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,
Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Elizabeth W. Hanes, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL
PUBLIC DEFENDER, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Vanita Gupta,
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Thomas E. Chandler, Civil Rights Division,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C.; Dana J. Boente,
United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, S. David Schiller, Assistant United States
Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for
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Appellant. Geremy C. Kamens, Federal Public Defender, Alexandria, Virginia, Mary E.
Maguire, Patrick L. Bryant, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
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SHEDD, Circuit Judge:
James Hill, III was working at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester,
Virginia, when he allegedly assaulted C.T., a fellow employee, because of C.T.’s actual
or perceived sexual orientation. Consequently, the United States indicted Hill for
violating 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2). The district court dismissed the indictment, finding §
249(a)(2) unconstitutional as applied to Hill. For the following reasons, we reverse and
The indictment alleges that, on or about May 22, 2015, Hill willfully caused
bodily injury to C.T. because of C.T.’s actual and perceived sexual orientation in
violation of § 249(a)(2). Additionally, the indictment charges that “in connection with the
offense, . . . Hill . . . interfered with commercial and other economic activity in which
C.T. was engaged at the time of the conduct, and which offense otherwise affected
interstate and foreign commerce.” J.A. 5. 1
Hill moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that § 249(a)(2) is unconstitutional,
both facially and as applied, as an invalid exercise of Congress’ power under the
Commerce Clause. In deciding the motion, the district court considered facts provided by
the parties that were not included in the indictment. Specifically, the court considered
asserted facts relating to the government’s allegation that the assault affected interstate
Section 249(a)(2) contains a jurisdictional element, which requires the
government to establish an appropriate and sufficient connection to interstate commerce
as an element of the offense.
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commerce. Ultimately, the court dismissed the indictment and concluded that § 249(a)(2)
exceeds Congress’ legislative power as applied to Hill. 2
We start by recognizing two important presumptions. First, although the district
court considered the proffered facts as true in deciding Hill’s pretrial motion, every
defendant comes into court presumed to be innocent. Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478,
483 (1978). Additionally, every statute passed by Congress is presumed to be
constitutional. United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 607 (2000).
With these presumptions in mind, we review de novo the district court’s dismissal
of the indictment. United States v. Brandon, 298 F.3d 307, 310 (4th Cir. 2002). “[A]
challenge to the sufficiency of the indictment . . . is ordinarily limited to the allegations
contained in the indictment,” and a court accepts the allegations as true. United States v.
Engle, 676 F.3d 405, 415 (4th Cir. 2012). Under Rule 12, “[a] district court may dismiss
an indictment . . . where there is an infirmity of law in the prosecution; a court may not
dismiss an indictment, however, on a determination of facts that should have been
developed at trial.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Although the parties have presented and briefed novel and complex issues of
constitutional law, this appeal is more appropriately resolved on a threshold issue. On its
Because the district court found the statute unconstitutional as applied, it did not
rule on the facial challenge. See Bd. of Trustees of State Univ. of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S.
469, 485 (1989) (finding that courts should normally decide as-applied challenges first).
The parties have not briefed the issue of whether the statute is facially valid. Therefore,
we also decline to decide this issue.
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face, the indictment is legally sufficient and does not present an unconstitutional exercise
of Congressional power. In an attempt to satisfy § 249(a)(2)’s jurisdictional element, the
indictment specifically alleges that Hill’s conduct had an effect on interstate commerce.
Because this is an as-applied challenge, whether Hill’s conduct sufficiently affects
interstate commerce as to satisfy the constitutional limitations placed on Congress’
Commerce Clause power may well depend on a consideration of facts, and because the
facts proffered here may or may not be developed at trial, it is premature to determine the
constitutional issues. 3 See Richmond Med. Ctr. for Women v. Herring, 570 F.3d 165, 172
(4th Cir. 2009) (en banc) (An as-applied challenge is “based on a developed factual
record and the application of a statute to a specific person[.]”); see also United States v.
Terry, 257 F.3d 366, 373 (4th Cir. 2001) (King, J., concurring) (“The interstate
commerce element of [18 U.S.C.] § 844(i) requires proof of a fact, and, in the ordinary
course, it is subject to our review of the Government’s evidence in accordance with” a
motion for a judgment of acquittal, not a pretrial motion.); United States v. Matzkin, 14
F.3d 1014, 1019 (4th Cir. 1994) (“An indictment that tracks the statutory language is
ordinarily valid.” (quoting United States v. Fogel, 901 F.2d 23, 25 (4th Cir. 1990))).
Importantly, the complex constitutional issues presented may be avoided in this case, for
At this stage, it is sufficient for the government to allege that the jurisdictional
element is satisfied. Whether the government presents facts within the constitutional
limitations of Congress’ commerce power can only be answered after a proper factual
context is established, e.g., at trial or in a formal stipulation, for such a determination.
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instance, should the prosecution fail to result in a conviction. 4 See Harmon v. Brucker,
355 U.S. 579, 581 (1958) (Courts have a “duty to avoid deciding constitutional questions
presented unless essential to proper disposition of a case.”); see also Bell Atl. Maryland,
Inc. v. Prince George’s Cty., Maryland, 212 F.3d 863, 866 (4th Cir. 2000) (determining
that the district court committed reversible error by deciding constitutional questions in
advance of considering state law questions that may dispose of the case).
We acknowledge that a court may look beyond the indictment where “the
government does not dispute the ability of the court to reach the motion and proffers,
stipulates, or otherwise does not dispute the pertinent facts.” United States v. Weaver, 659
F.3d 353, 355 n.* (4th Cir. 2011). However, in Weaver the issue was one of statutory
interpretation and was “purely legal.” Id. Because the issue before this Court is an asapplied constitutional challenge, it involves questions of law and fact, and it is not
prudent at this point to consider the extraneous facts, most of which were proffered by the
government in an attempt to strengthen its case. 5 This determination is reinforced by the
The government also presents an argument on appeal that was not directly before
the district court: whether § 249(a)(2) is constitutional as applied under the Commerce
Clause as a regulation of workplace conduct and discrimination. We believe the district
court should consider this issue in the first instance.
Additionally, the proffered facts fail to indicate the precise effect on interstate
commerce that Hill’s actions may or may not have had. For example, the facts relating to
the items not shipped because of the assault are based on Amazon benchmarks, not the
specific facts of this case. See J.A. 37. These factual uncertainties must be resolved
before a court can properly rule on Hill’s as-applied constitutional challenge, as the
challenge involves determining whether Hill’s conduct substantially affected interstate
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presumptions of innocence and constitutionality. Facts outside of an indictment should
not be used to conclusively decide whether an element of a criminal offense is satisfied
during a pretrial motion, and a Congressional statute should not be overturned on an
incomplete record. Thus, we conclude that the district court erred when it dismissed the
Accordingly, we reverse and remand with directions to reinstate the indictment.
REVERSED AND REMANDED
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WYNN, Circuit Judge, dissenting from the basis for the judgment:
Defendant James Hill, III physically assaulted a coworker preparing packages for
interstate shipment because Defendant believed him to be homosexual. Recognizing that
the Virginia hate crime statute does not extend to cases involving sexual orientation, the
Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in Chesterfield County referred this case to the U.S.
Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Following the Attorney General’s
certification that prosecuting Defendant at the federal level is in the public interest and is
necessary to secure substantial justice, the government indicted Defendant under the
federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (the “Hate Crimes Act”), 18 U.S.C.
§ 249(a)(2). The district court dismissed the indictment on grounds that the Hate Crimes
Act, as applied to Defendant’s conduct, exceeded Congress’s authority under the
On review to this Court, the majority opinion now ignores the district court’s basis
for dismissing the indictment and instead concludes that, because the government’s
indictment sets forth the charged offense in the language of the statute, it satisfies the
specificity requirement imposed by Fifth and Sixth Amendments. But that conclusion
answers a question that Defendant never raised and the district court, unsurprisingly,
never addressed. In so doing, the majority opinion elides the question that Defendant and
the government properly placed before the district court and this Court: Whether
Congress can enact a statute, pursuant to its authority to regulate interstate commerce,
proscribing the physical assault of a victim whose job involves packing products for
interstate sale and shipment and who is doing that job at the time of the assault?
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If that important question is properly answered, as it should be, then it must be
concluded that such a statute easily falls under Congress’s broad authority to regulate
interstate commerce. The Supreme Court has consistently held that Congress has the
authority to regulate criminal conduct that interferes with ongoing commercial activity
subject to congressional regulation. See, e.g., Taylor v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2074
(2016). And the Commerce Clause assuredly empowers Congress to regulate the sale
and shipment of goods across state lines. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3; United States v.
Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 558 (1995).
Therefore, Congress may proscribe conduct—
including violent assaults on individuals engaged in interstate commercial activity—that
interferes with that activity.
Cavalierly, the majority ducks the only issue in this case and instead decides an
issue that was neither presented by the parties nor addressed by the district court. The
only issue in this case is one of first impression and of great importance—it was
addressed by the district court and has now been placed squarely before us by the parties.
We should not, on our own volition, create a basis for avoiding it.
The facts relevant to whether the government’s prosecution of Defendant complies
with the Commerce Clause are not in dispute. At the time of the assault, Defendant and
the victim—referred to by the parties as “C.T.”—were coworkers at an Amazon
Fulfillment Center in Chester, Virginia.
Defendant worked as a “re-binner” at the
Amazon facility and was responsible for “moving items from various bins on [a]
conveyor belt to [a] cubbyhole for aggregation prior to packaging.” J.A. 37. C.T. was
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employed as a “packer,” which required him to take items from the cubbyholes and load
them into boxes for shipment.
At approximately 7:00 p.m. on May 22, 2015, C.T. was retrieving items to load
into a box when Defendant approached C.T. from behind and—without provocation or
warning—repeatedly punched him in the face. As a result of the attack, C.T. sustained
numerous injuries, including a bloody nose, abrasions on his nose and cheeks, and
lacerations and bruising around his left eye. Following the incident, neither Defendant
nor C.T. returned to their work stations for the remainder of their ten-hour shifts. Their
absences affected more than 5,500 items, which were either not shipped or not “rebinned” during that time.
Later that evening, Defendant provided a statement to the Amazon Human
Resources and Loss Prevention staff before agreeing to a voluntary interview by the
Chesterfield County Police Department. In each instance, Defendant explained that he
“felt disrespected by C.T. because C.T. was a homosexual; that he does not like
homosexuals; and that C.T. deserved to be punched because he was a homosexual.” J.A.
36. Defendant offered no other explanation for the assault.
About six months after the Attorney General certified that prosecuting Defendant
at the federal level “is in the public interest and is necessary to secure substantial justice,”
J.A. 33, a federal grand jury returned the one-count indictment now before us. The
indictment alleges that Defendant physically assaulted C.T. because of C.T.’s actual or
perceived sexual orientation. The indictment further alleges that, in doing so, Defendant
“interfered with commercial and other economic activity in which C.T. was engaged at
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the time of the conduct” and that the assault “otherwise affected interstate and foreign
commerce.” J.A. 5.
Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment on several grounds, including that the
Hate Crimes Act, as applied to his conduct, exceeded Congress’s authority under the
The district court agreed with Defendant’s as-applied challenge
under the Commerce Clause and dismissed the indictment. United States v. Hill, 182 F.
Supp. 3d 546, 555–56 (E.D. Va. 2016). The government timely appealed.
Before analyzing whether Defendant’s prosecution is permissible under the
Commerce Clause, it is first necessary to dispose of the majority opinion’s contention
that addressing that question prior to trial would improperly infringe upon Defendant’s
presumption of innocence and right to have every element of the charged offense found
beyond a reasonable doubt by an appropriate factfinder. 1 See ante at 6–7.
It is a fundamental precept of our criminal justice system that the accused enjoys a
presumption of innocence at all stages of the government’s prosecution.
Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503 (1976). Therefore, we may not, under the auspices of
Notably, the government has not argued that the district court erred in reaching
the merits of Defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment on grounds that doing so
would infringe upon Defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. Generally, we may
not reverse a district court’s judgment based on an argument not raised by an appellant,
except when failing to do so would result in a “miscarriage of justice.” A Helping Hand,
LLC v. Baltimore Cty., Md., 515 F.3d 356, 369 (4th Cir. 2008) (“It is a well settled rule
that contentions not raised in the argument section of the opening brief are abandoned.”
(internal quotation and alterations omitted)). No miscarriage of justice results from
declining to revive Defendant’s prosecution based on an argument not raised by the
government, nor has the government argued as much.
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disposing of a pretrial motion to dismiss an indictment, resolve factual disputes that must
instead be decided at trial. See United States v. Engle, 676 F.3d 405, 415 (4th Cir. 2012).
Likewise, the Supreme Court has long made clear that the Constitution provides that a
criminal defendant may be convicted only if every element of a charged offense is found
beyond a reasonable doubt by a proper factfinder. See United States v. Gaudin, 515 U.S.
506, 522–23 (1995); see also United States v. Ramirez-Castillo, 748 F.3d 205, 212–13
(4th Cir. 2014) (relying on Gaudin and explaining that the jury’s role is to determine the
facts as to each element and apply the law as instructed by the judge to those facts).
But resolving the only issue properly before us—whether the government’s
prosecution of Defendant complies with the Commerce Clause—does not tread upon
Defendant’s constitutional rights. To be sure, we must closely scrutinize any judicial
decision that has the potential to infringe on a criminal defendant’s rights under the
Among those rights, however, Defendant—like any other criminal
defendant—has a right to defend the charges against him in the manner he sees fit. Cf.
Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 818–21 (1975) (describing the constitutional
foundations of a criminal defendant’s right to self-representation); see also Indiana v.
Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 184 (2008) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (“What the Constitution
requires is that a defendant be given the right to challenge the State’s case against him
using the arguments he sees fit.” (emphasis in original)). Here, rather than subjecting
himself to the time and expense of trial (or, instead, pleading guilty and forgoing the very
rights the majority seeks to preserve), Defendant elected to lodge a pretrial challenge to
his prosecution based on the undisputed facts giving rise to his indictment.
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Significantly, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(b)(1) provides that a
defendant “may raise by pretrial motion any defense, objection, or request that the court
can determine without a trial on the merits.” Under Rule 12(b)(1), “a district court may
consider a pretrial motion to dismiss an indictment where the government does not
dispute the ability of the court to reach the motion and proffers, stipulates, or otherwise
does not dispute the pertinent facts.” United States v. Weaver, 659 F.3d 353, 355 n.* (4th
Cir. 2011) (interpreting a previous version of Rule 12(b)(1), which has since been
reorganized without substantive modification). Just the same, this Court and other courts
routinely decide constitutional challenges to the application of criminal statutes raised in
pretrial motions to dismiss an indictment. See, e.g., United States v. Nash, 627 F.3d 693,
696–97 (8th Cir. 2010); United States v. Terry, 257 F.3d 366, 367–68 (4th Cir. 2001);
United States v. Wilks, 58 F.3d 1518, 1519–22 (10th Cir. 1995); see also 42 C.J.S.
Indictments § 237 (2017) (“Typically, constitutional challenges to the charging statute
can be raised during pretrial motions, specifically, in a motion to dismiss the
indictment . . . .”).
Here, in moving to dismiss the indictment, Defendant recounted the undisputed
facts giving rise to the charged offense and argued that the Hate Crimes Act “is
unconstitutional as applied to [those] undisputed facts.” J.A. 23. The government did not
dispute the district court’s authority to resolve Defendant’s motion, and the relevant facts
proffered by the government in its response to the motion to dismiss the indictment
mirror those recounted in Defendant’s motion. In accordance with the parties’ filings, the
district court found that “[t]he parties do not dispute the facts material to the court’s
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decision on the constitutionality of the [Hate Crimes Act] as applied to Hill,” and
therefore concluded that Defendant’s motion to dismiss was procedurally appropriate
under Rule 12(b)(1). See Hill, 182 F. Supp. 3d at 548 n.1. We have held that a district
court may resolve a defendant’s motion to dismiss an indictment in precisely these
circumstances. Weaver, 659 F.3d at 355 & n.* (resolving pretrial motion to dismiss
indictment raising question of statutory interpretation). Frankly, “[t]here is no good
reason to force the court to incur the expense and delay of a trial that would inevitably
lead to the same outcome as its pretrial ruling.” Id. at 355 n.*.
Nevertheless, the majority relies upon a concurring opinion’s assertion that, “in
the ordinary course,” the question of whether a defendant’s alleged conduct satisfies a
statute’s interstate commerce element is better resolved in connection with a motion for a
judgment of acquittal, and not a pretrial motion to dismiss. See Terry, 257 F.3d at 373
(King, J., concurring); see also ante at 5. But a concurring opinion has no binding effect
on the law in this circuit for “[i]t goes without saying that the majority opinion, not the
gloss that the concurrence seeks to place thereon, is controlling.” Dababnah v. KellerBurnside, 208 F.3d 467, 471 n.3 (4th Cir. 2000); see Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408,
412–13 (1997) (observing that a statement in a concurrence does not “constitute binding
precedent”). And even if we did accord concurring opinions some degree of precedential
value, that concurrence did not embrace an absolute bar on the resolution of as-applied
Commerce Clause challenges through a pretrial motion to dismiss an indictment. Rather,
it suggested that such challenges should be resolved “in the ordinary course” through a
motion for a judgment of acquittal. See Terry, 257 F.3d at 373 (King, J., concurring).
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What the majority should rely upon is the Terry majority opinion, which
unquestionably is binding on this panel and unambiguously held that, in circumstances
substantively indistinguishable from the instant case, district courts should resolve an asapplied constitutional challenge raised in a motion to dismiss an indictment. Terry
involved an as-applied challenge to the federal arson statute, 18 U.S.C. § 844, by two
defendants charged with starting two fires in a North Carolina church. 257 F.3d at 367.
Like here, the defendants moved before trial to dismiss the government’s indictment on
the ground that application of the federal statute to their alleged conduct would exceed
Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause. See id. And like here, the district
court convened a pretrial hearing to consider the defendants’ motion, at which the
government proffered additional evidence purporting to show a nexus between the church
and interstate commerce. Id. at 367–68. Also like here, the government did not dispute
the district court’s authority to resolve the defendants’ pretrial motion to dismiss the
indictment. See id.
Contrary to the Terry concurring opinion, the Terry majority opinion addressed the
merits of the defendants’ Commerce Clause challenge. In reaching the merits, the Terry
majority opinion explained that when resolving an as-applied constitutional challenge
raised in a motion to dismiss an indictment, the proper course is to “assume that all facts
proffered by the government are true,” even when such facts are not set forth in the
indictment. See id. at 367 (emphasis added). To that end, in considering whether the
burned church demonstrated a sufficient relationship to interstate commerce to support a
federal prosecution, the Terry majority opinion relied on evidence proffered by the
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government in the pretrial hearing. See id. at 368–71. This evidence, which was not set
out in the underlying indictment, included allegations regarding the operation of a
daycare center on the church’s premises that was damaged in the fire, as well as specific
representations regarding the center’s fees, employment practices, and hours of operation.
See id. at 369–70. Taking these allegations as true, the Court held that the church
facilities were “actively employed in commercial activities,” such that the government
could pursue its federal charges against the defendants without running afoul of the
Constitution. See id. at 371.
The district court’s resolution of Defendant’s as-applied Commerce Clause
challenge is therefore entirely consistent with the approach taken by this Court in Terry.
With this in mind, to resolve the instant appeal, we must consider whether, taking as true
all of the factual allegations proffered by the government before the district court, the
indictment states an offense under the Hate Crimes Act. See id. at 367–68.
Having concluded that we are bound to consider the thrust of Defendant’s
constitutional challenge to his prosecution, I further conclude that the undisputed facts—
that Defendant assaulted C.T. at his place of employment while C.T. was packing boxes
for interstate shipment—establish a sufficient nexus between Defendant’s conduct and
interstate commerce to support a conviction under the Hate Crimes Act.
It “is a well-worn yet ever-vital maxim that the Constitution creates a Federal
Government of enumerated powers.” United States v. Bollinger, 798 F.3d 201, 208 (4th
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Cir. 2015) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lopez, 514 U.S. at
552). Among these enumerated powers, the Commerce Clause permits Congress “[t]o
regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the
Indian Tribes.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.
Under the Supreme Court’s modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence, “Congress is
limited to regulating three broad categories of interstate activity: (1) ‘the use of the
channels of interstate commerce,’ (2) ‘the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or
persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and (3) ‘activities that substantially affect
interstate commerce.’” Bollinger, 798 F.3d at 209 (quoting Lopez, 514 U.S. at 558–59).
In limiting federal authority to these categories, the Supreme Court has consistently
invoked themes of federalism and its view that “Congress’s interstate power must be
‘read carefully to avoid creating a general federal authority akin to the police power.’”
Id. at 211 (quoting Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2578 (2012)).
Congress paid close attention to the scope of its authority under the Commerce
Clause when it enacted the Hate Crimes Act, which was designed to strengthen federal
efforts to combat violent hate crimes—crimes targeting victims based on certain
enumerated characteristics. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010,
Pub. L. 111-84, §§ 4701–13, 123 Stat. 2190, 2835–44 (2009). The statute’s substantive
provisions are preceded by congressional findings regarding the prevalence and impact of
violent hate crimes throughout the country, as well as Congress’s desire to assist state and
local efforts to combat such violence. Id. § 4702. Distinguishing hate crimes from other
violent crimes—which, Congress emphasized, States continue to be responsible for
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prosecuting—Congress concluded that violent hate crimes “substantially affect
interstate commerce in many ways.” Id. § 4702(6). Among these effects, Congress
The movement of members of targeted groups is impeded, and
members of such groups are forced to move across State lines to
escape the incidence or risk of such violence.
Members of targeted groups are prevented from purchasing goods
and services, obtaining or sustaining employment, or participating in
other commercial activity.
Perpetrators cross State lines to commit such violence.
Channels, facilities, and instrumentalities of interstate commerce are
used to facilitate the commission of such violence.
Such violence is committed using articles that have traveled in
Id. As such, Congress concluded that “[f]ederal jurisdiction over certain violent crimes
motivated by bias enables Federal, State, and local authorities to work together as
partners in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.” Id. § 4702(9).
To achieve this state-federal collaboration, the Hate Crimes Act created a variety
of federal criminal offenses arising out of violent acts undertaken with animus towards
various actual or perceived personal characteristics of the victim. Most importantly, for
present purposes, the statute provides that any person who, under certain specified
circumstances, “willfully causes bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or
perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or
disability of any person . . . shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years.” 18 U.S.C.
§ 249(a)(2)(A)(i). Such conduct may be prosecuted under the statute only where it, inter
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alia, “interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is
engaged at the time of the conduct” or “otherwise affects interstate or foreign
commerce.” Id. § 249(a)(2)(B)(iv).
In adopting the Hate Crimes Act, Congress sought to “invoke the full scope of [its]
Commerce Clause power, and to ensure that hate crimes prosecutions brought under
[§ 249(a)(2) would] not be mired in constitutional litigation.” H.R. Rep. No. 111–86, at
15 (2009). Aware of the relevant authority addressing the extent of that power, the bill’s
authors sought to ensure that conduct criminalized under the statute would have “the
requisite connection to interstate commerce.” See id. (“To avoid constitutional concerns
arising from the decision in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), the bill requires
that the Government prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as an element of the offense, a
nexus to interstate commerce in every prosecution brought under one of the newly
created categories of 18 U.S.C. 249(a)(2).”); see also id. (explaining that the interstate
commerce element was “drawn to comport with Supreme Court guidance in Lopez and
U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000)”); id. (explaining that “[t]he interstate commerce
nexus required by the bill is analogous to that required in other Federal criminal statutes,”
such as the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, 18 U.S.C. § 247).
Against this legal backdrop, the government contends that the district court erred
in holding that Defendant’s assault of C.T. lacked sufficient connection to interstate
commerce to support Defendant’s prosecution under the Hate Crimes Act. Specifically,
the government argues that the assault, which occurred while C.T. was actively working
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as an Amazon employee, “interfere[d] with commercial or other economic activity in
which [C.T. was] engaged at the time of the [assault],” 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(B)(iv)(I),
and, thus, Defendant is subject to prosecution consistent with Congress’s Commerce
Clause authority. 2
Whether the Hate Crimes Act may be constitutionally applied to an unarmed
assault at a victim’s place of work appears to be an issue of first impression in this Circuit
or any other. See, e.g., United States v. Miller, 767 F.3d 585, 589, 602 (6th Cir. 2014)
(reversing Hate Crimes Act convictions due to erroneous jury instructions and declining
to consider as-applied challenge to prosecution for a series of assaults on Amish men);
United States v. Mason, 993 F. Supp. 2d 1308, 1317 (D. Or. 2014) (rejecting as-applied
challenge involving assault with a weapon, but noting that “it might be unconstitutional
to apply the [Hate Crimes Act] . . . if the weapon [the defendant] used had not traveled in
interstate or foreign commerce, or if he had not used any weapon at all”); United States v.
Jenkins, 909 F. Supp. 2d 758, 764, 773 (E.D. Ky. 2012) (concluding, albeit reluctantly,
that the Hate Crimes Act is constitutional as applied to defendants who kidnapped and
transported victim along federal highway).
Despite this lack of precedential guidance, the parties agree that Defendant’s
prosecution is constitutional, if at all, as an effort to regulate “activities that substantially
Because I conclude that the undisputed facts are sufficient to establish that
Defendant’s conduct “interfere[d] with commercial or other economic activity in which
the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct,” I need not—and thus do not—reach the
question of whether Defendant’s conduct is susceptible to federal prosecution as
“otherwise affect[ing] interstate or foreign commerce.” 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(B)(iv).
affect interstate commerce.”
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Bollinger, 798 F.3d at 209 (internal quotation marks
Before the district court and this Court, the government argued that, by
“interfering” with C.T.’s packaging and shipping of products, Defendant’s conduct
“substantially affect[ed] interstate commerce,” as that phrase has been interpreted in
decisions upholding prosecutions for robbery under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a),
and arson under 18 U.S.C. § 844(i). I agree.
The Supreme Court addressed a Commerce Clause challenge to the Hobbs Act in
Taylor v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2074 (2016). Similar to the Hate Crimes Act, the
Hobbs Act provides for federal penalties for robbery and extortion that “in any way or
degree obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or
commodity in commerce.” 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a). Taylor involved the prosecution of a
defendant who attempted to steal marijuana and cash from two drug dealers. 136 S. Ct.
Upholding the defendant’s conviction, a near-unanimous majority
characterized its holding as “straightforward and dictated by [the Court’s] precedent.” Id.
Specifically, the Court explained that Congress’s recognized authority to
regulate purely intrastate production, possession, and sale of marijuana—due to the
aggregate effect of these activities on interstate commerce—compelled the conclusion
that Congress may likewise regulate conduct that affects such activities. See id. at 2080
(“In this case, the activity at issue, the sale of marijuana, is unquestionably an economic
activity. . . . It therefore follows as a simple matter of logic that a robber who affects or
attempts to affect even the intrastate sale of marijuana . . . affects or attempts to affect
commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction.”). Taylor therefore establishes
Pg: 22 of 33
that, pursuant to its power under the Commerce Clause, Congress may proscribe violent
conduct when such conduct interferes with or otherwise affects commerce over which
Congress has jurisdiction. See id. Importantly, Congress may regulate violent conduct
interfering with interstate commerce even when the conduct itself has a “minimal” effect
on such commerce. Id. at 2079, 2081.
Much the same, the federal arson statute prohibits setting fire to “any . . . property
used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign
commerce.” 18 U.S.C. § 844(i). In Russell v. United States, 471 U.S. 858 (1985), the
Supreme Court unanimously held that the statute may be applied to prosecute a defendant
who set fire to a two-unit apartment building. 471 U.S. at 858–62. In reaching this
conclusion, the Court noted that the statute’s broad phrasing—covering any property used
in an activity affecting interstate commerce—was intended to “protect all business
property, as well as some additional property that might not fit that description.” Id. at
862. The rental of the property at issue in that case was “unquestionably” covered by the
statute, the Court explained, because “the local rental of an apartment unit is merely an
element of a much broader commercial market in rental properties[, and t]he
congressional power to regulate the class of activities that constitute the rental market for
real estate includes the power to regulate individual activity within that class.” Id. As in
Taylor, the Court thus indicated that Congress may regulate crime when such crime
interferes with or otherwise affects commerce subject to congressional regulation. See
United States v. Garcia, 768 F.3d 822, 829–30 (9th Cir. 2014).
Pg: 23 of 33
After Lopez, and during the same term that the Supreme Court decided Morrison,
the Court again addressed the constitutional sweep of the federal arson statute in Jones v.
United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000). There, the Supreme Court construed the statute to
permit the government to pursue a prosecution only where the defendant’s conduct
affects “property currently used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce.” 529
U.S. at 859. In so doing, the Court recognized the potential constitutional concerns that
may have arisen had Congress sought to “render . . . traditionally local criminal
conduct . . . a matter for federal enforcement.” Id. at 858 (internal quotation marks
omitted). To ameliorate these concerns and ensure that prosecutions under the statute
involve conduct bearing a constitutionally adequate connection to interstate commerce,
the Court required the government to show that a subject building was used in commerce
or in an activity affecting commerce at the time of its destruction. Id. at 858–59. As in
Russell, the Court’s analysis makes plain that, where a defendant’s conduct directly
interferes with or otherwise affects commerce subject to congressional regulation, that
conduct may be federally regulated under the Commerce Clause. To wit, as noted, this
Court has since held that Section 844(i) was constitutional as applied to the prosecution
of defendants who set fire to a church that provided daycare services. See Terry, 257
F.3d at 369–71.
I agree with the government that, under these precedents, Defendant’s charged
conduct is subject to congressional regulation under the Commerce Clause. In particular,
the parties do not dispute that Congress enjoys the authority to regulate the underlying
commercial activity C.T. was engaged in at the time of the assault (i.e., preparing goods
for sale and shipment across state lines).
Pg: 24 of 33
And taking the government’s proffered
evidence as true—as we must, see id. at 367—Defendant’s physical assault of C.T.
directly interfered with and thwarted the packaging, shipment, and sale of over 5,500
items across state lines. Under current Supreme Court precedent, it follows that Congress
has the authority to proscribe Defendant’s violent conduct.
That is precisely what
Congress did in enacting the Hate Crimes Act, thereby making it unlawful for a
defendant to inflict bodily injury in a manner that “interferes with commercial or other
economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct.” 18 U.S.C.
Seeking to distinguish the Hobbs Act and arson cases, Defendant argues that
robbery and arson are “economic endeavors” that have “a direct connection with
commerce separate from their jurisdictional elements.” Appellee’s Br. at 18–19. By
contrast, in Defendant’s view, the Hate Crimes Act “does not prohibit violence related to
an economic act, such as assaults done in order to further an economic interest,” and
therefore exceeds Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause. Appellee’s Br. at
Defendant’s argument has some superficial appeal. See, e.g., United States v.
Walker, 657 F.3d 160, 179 (3d Cir. 2011) (“Although drawing the line between
‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ activities may sometimes be difficult, property crimes
like robbery and extortion are—unlike . . . gender-motivated violence—indisputably
‘economic’ under our post-Lopez precedents.”).
However, the Supreme Court has
recognized that the economic or non-economic nature of proscribed conduct turns on
Pg: 25 of 33
whether the conduct can be shown to affect economic activity subject to congressional
regulation—and therefore interstate commerce—and not whether the perpetrator of the
conduct was motivated by economic interest. See, e.g., Jones, 529 U.S. at 854 (requiring
courts to consider the commercial function, if any, of destroyed property to determine
whether its destruction may be prosecuted under the federal arson statute).
Indeed, we have consistently rejected the argument that a defendant must intend
for his criminal conduct to affect interstate commerce for such conduct to be susceptible
to congressional regulation under the Commerce Clause. See, e.g., United States v.
Williams, 342 F.3d 350, 354 (4th Cir. 2003) (holding that the Hobbs Act “does not
require proof that a defendant intended to affect commerce or that the effect on
commerce was certain; it is enough that such an effect was the natural, probable
consequence of the defendant’s actions”).
And this Court and other circuits have
concluded that federal arson statutes may be applied against defendants who set fire to
property used in interstate commerce, notwithstanding that such defendants were
motivated by purely personal reasons, and not any economic interest. See, e.g., United
States v. Ballinger, 395 F.3d 1218, 1221–23 (11th Cir. 2005) (en banc) (upholding
conviction of defendant, a self-proclaimed practicing “Luciferian,” who set fire to
numerous churches because of his “hostility toward organized Christianity”); United
States v. Cristobal, 293 F.3d 134, 137, 144–46 (4th Cir. 2002) (upholding federal arson
conviction where defendant targeted victims based on suspicions regarding wife’s
philandering and planted car bombs on vehicles driven by victims and owned by the
victims’ employers); United States v. Grassie, 237 F.3d 1199, 1205, 1211 (10th Cir.
Pg: 26 of 33
2001) (upholding conviction of defendant who set fire to truck used to haul fruits of
annual harvest, even though defendant set fire to truck because victim’s mother had
broken off relationship with defendant).
In this sense, the distinction between purely economic property crimes and purely
non-economic violent crimes is not as clear as Defendant suggests. For example, we
have held that conduct that does not directly implicate commerce or property may be
viewed as economic when a connection between the conduct and interstate commerce is
evident. See, e.g., Gibbs v. Babbitt, 214 F.3d 483, 492 (4th Cir. 2000) (contrasting the
hunting of red wolves with “gender-motivated violence,” but holding that such hunting is
“in a meaningful sense economic activity” because wolves pose a threat to livestock and
are a draw for interstate tourism).
Along similar lines, although the Lopez Court
described mere firearm possession as “in no sense an economic activity that might,
through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce,” 514
U.S. at 567, we—along with every other circuit to have considered the issue—have
upheld federal statutes criminalizing such possession when the firearm in question has
moved in interstate commerce, see, e.g., United States v. Gallimore, 247 F.3d 134, 138
(4th Cir. 2001); see also United States v. Nathan, 202 F.3d 230, 234 (4th Cir. 2000)
(explaining that the jurisdictional element “requires a case-by-case inquiry into the
connection with commerce”). In light of these holdings, Defendant’s assertion that
“[p]unching someone in the face has nothing to do with commerce,” Appellee’s Br. at 11,
is inapposite. It is not the violent act itself that triggers Congress’s regulatory authority
Pg: 27 of 33
under the Commerce Clause, but the effect of that act on interstate commerce that renders
it susceptible to federal regulation. 3
The firm distinction Defendant would have us draw between economic and noneconomic crimes would lead to any number of anomalous results. For example, under
the standard advanced by Defendant, the Commerce Clause would not permit federal
authorities to prosecute an individual who—like Defendant—attacked a coworker
actively engaged in the packing and shipment of a product across state lines. But, if the
shipped product was a firearm and the recipient sat on a park bench within 1,000 feet of a
public school while in possession of that firearm—be it the following day or seventeen
years later—the recipient’s conduct would have a sufficient effect on interstate commerce
to support the recipient’s conviction under the Commerce Clause. See United States v.
Crump, 120 F.3d 462, 466 n.2 (4th Cir. 1997); see also United States v. Roseby, 454 F.
Although Defendant does not dispute the government's estimate of the number of
packages impacted by the assault, the majority opinion suggests that, before resolving
Defendant’s Commerce Clause challenge, further factual development is required to
definitively determine the precise number of Amazon shipments affected by Defendant's
assault of C.T. Ante at 6 n.5. But the Supreme Court has made clear that, for purposes of
assessing an as-applied challenge under the Commerce Clause, “it makes no
difference . . . that any actual or threatened effect on commerce in a particular case is
minimal.” Taylor, 136 S. Ct. at 2081. Rather, “[w]here the class of activities is regulated
and that class is within the reach of federal power, the courts have no power ‘to excise, as
trivial, individual instances’ of the class.” Perez v. United States, 402 U.S. 146, 154
(1971) (quoting Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183, 193 (1968)). Thus, the Supreme Court
has rejected Commerce Clause challenges when the charged conduct interfered with even
a miniscule amount of interstate commerce. Taylor, 136 S. Ct. at 2078, 2081–82
(affirming Hobbs Act conviction based on attempted drug robberies that netted only
jewelry, $40, three cell phones, and a single marijuana cigarette).
Accordingly, as long as Defendant’s assault of C.T. affected some shipments, the
exact number of shipments affected by his assault has no bearing on the resolution of
Defendant’s Commerce Clause challenge.
Pg: 28 of 33
App’x 186, 188 (4th Cir. 2011). It can hardly be gainsaid that the passive possession of a
firearm outside a school bears any more obvious a relationship to interstate commerce
than the actual shipment of the same firearm across state lines.
Likewise, were Defendant’s position correct that the Commerce Clause permits
Congress to regulate only crimes against property, and not crimes against persons, then
Congress could hold criminally accountable individuals who damage real property owned
by a business, see Terry, 257 F.3d at 369–71, but not individuals who assault an
employee actively working for that business. Yet there is no constitutional or logical
basis to conclude that the Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to regulate interference
with one factor of production (capital, in the form of real property), but not another
(labor). On the contrary, the Supreme Court’s longstanding recognition that Congress
may pervasively regulate the labor market and the terms and conditions of employment
indicates that Congress may proscribe conduct that interferes with labor as well as
capital. See, e.g., NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 30–32 (1937)
(rejecting Commerce Clause challenge to the National Labor Relations Act). 4
Defendant further argues—and the district court held—that the Supreme Court’s
decisions in Lopez and Morrison demonstrate that Defendant’s physical assault of C.T.
does not fall under Congress’s authority to regulate “activities that substantially affect
The fallacy underlying this distinction is even more evident in light of the rising
tide of automation throughout much of the American economy. Under the rule proposed
by Defendant, Congress would have less authority to protect flesh-and-blood workers
employed in interstate commerce than machines performing the very same tasks as those
workers. I see no constitutional basis for embracing such a rule, and Defendant has
pointed to none.
Pg: 29 of 33
interstate commerce.” See Hill, 182 F. Supp. 3d at 552–55. 5 Again, however, the
government has the better of the argument on this score.
In Lopez, the Supreme Court considered a challenge to the Gun-Free School Zones
Act, in which Congress established a federal criminal offense prohibiting possession of a
firearm near a school. 514 U.S. at 551. There, the defendant, a 12th-grade student, was
charged with carrying a concealed .38-caliber handgun on school property. Id. The
Supreme Court held that the statute exceeded Congress’s authority under the Commerce
Clause because it had “nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise,
however broadly one might define those terms.”
Id. at 561.
The Court further
emphasized that the statute lacked an interstate-commerce jurisdictional element and
explained that it could not be “sustained under . . . cases upholding regulations of
activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed
in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.”
Finally, the Court
rejected the government’s argument that the statute was constitutional because possession
of firearms in school zones may lead to violent crimes which have substantial societal
and economic costs. Id. at 563–64. Accepting such a “costs of crime” argument would
permit Congress to “regulate not only all violent crime, but all activities that might lead
In moving to dismiss the indictment, Defendant argued, in the alternative, that
the Hate Crimes Act is facially unconstitutional and that the “catch-all” jurisdictional
elements included in the statute are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Having
found the statute unconstitutional as applied in this case, however, the district court
declined to reach these alternative bases for dismissing the indictment. Defendant has
declined to renew these alternative arguments before this Court, and I therefore do not
reach them in resolving the instant appeal.
Pg: 30 of 33
to violent crime, regardless of how tenuously they relate to interstate commerce,” the
Court said, which would unconstitutionally “‘obliterate the distinction between what is
national and what is local.’” Id. at 564, 567 (quoting A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v.
United States, 295 U.S. 495, 554 (1935) (Cardozo, J., concurring)).
Morrison involved a challenge to a provision in the Violence Against Women Act
which established a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence.
529 U.S. at 601–02. There, the Supreme Court held that the statute exceeded Congress’s
power under the Commerce clause, emphasizing that “[g]ender-motivated crimes of
violence are not, in any sense of the phrase, economic activity.” Id. at 613. “The
regulation and punishment of intrastate violence that is not directed at the
instrumentalities, channels, or goods involved in interstate commerce has always been the
province of the States,” the Court explained. Id. at 618. The Court also emphasized that
the Violence Against Women Act, like the Gun-Free School Zones Act, did not have an
interstate-commerce jurisdictional element. Id. at 613. Finally, the Court rejected “the
argument that Congress may regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based
solely on that conduct’s aggregate effect on interstate commerce.” Id. at 617; see also id.
at 618 (“Indeed, we can think of no better example of the police power, which the
Founders denied the National Government and reposed in the States, than the suppression
of violent crime and vindication of its victims.”).
Lopez and Morrison are readily distinguishable from the present case.
significantly, whereas the Morrison and Lopez Courts found it significant that the statutes
at issue in those cases had no interstate-commerce jurisdictional element, the provision in
Pg: 31 of 33
the Hate Crimes Act under which the government indicted Defendant includes such an
element. That element requires that, to convict a defendant under the Hate Crimes Act,
both a court and a fact-finder must conclude that the defendant’s conduct “interfere[d]
with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of
the conduct.” 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(B)(iv)(I). Notably, Defendant has identified no case
in which a federal criminal statute including such a jurisdictional element has been held
to exceed Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause, nor have I found any.
Additionally, the conduct giving rise to the prosecutions at issue in Lopez and
Morrison—possessing a handgun on a school campus and domestic violence—did not
interfere with ongoing interstate commerce or economic activity.
Defendant’s assault of C.T. interfered with such ongoing activity by preventing C.T. from
continuing to prepare packages for interstate sale and shipment. The Lopez Court itself
recognized this critical distinction, stating flatly that “Congress is empowered to regulate
and protect . . . persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may
come only from intrastate activities.” 514 U.S. at 558 (emphasis added).
Finally, the slippery-slope concern animating the Lopez Court’s holding—that
allowing Congress to regulate the possession of guns in school zones would give
Congress unfettered authority to regulate wholly intrastate conduct traditionally subject to
regulation by the States—is not present here. Section 249(a)(2)(B)(iv)(I) authorizes
federal prosecution of a hate crime only when the crime “interferes with commercial or
other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct.” As
the government concedes, this provision does not give the federal government general
Pg: 32 of 33
license to punish “crimes of violence motivated by discriminatory animus.”
Appellant’s Br. at 21. As authored, therefore, the Hate Crimes Act thus does not infringe
on States’ exclusive authority to regulate violent crimes—including hate crimes—
unrelated to ongoing interstate commerce. For example, if Defendant had assaulted C.T.
at a private residence while C.T. was not engaged in activity related to interstate
commerce, then Defendant would not be subject to prosecution under the statute.
In sum, because conduct criminalized under the Hate Crimes Act necessarily
“relates to an activity that has something to do with commerce or any sort of economic
enterprise,” United States v. Gibert, 677 F.3d 613, 624 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation
marks omitted), the statute does not open the door to pervasive federal regulation of
violent hate crimes.
The immediate impact of Defendant’s assault of C.T. on ongoing commercial
activity demonstrates a sufficient relationship to interstate commerce to support
Defendant’s prosecution under the Hate Crimes Act. Because Defendant has thus far
failed to make a “plain showing” to the contrary, see Gibert, 677 F.3d at 618, and
assuming the government succeeds in proving its allegations at trial, I would find the
statute is constitutional as applied in this case. Accordingly, for reasons not given in the
majority opinion, the district court order to the contrary should be reversed and this case
should be remanded with instructions to reinstate the challenged indictment.
With due respect to my colleagues in the majority, the issue of whether the
government’s prosecution of Defendant complies with the Commerce Clause is properly
Pg: 33 of 33
before us. It should be resolved. Because the majority opinion elides that important
issue, I must dissent.
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