Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Household Chores ≠ Forced Labor

United States v. Toviave, No. 13-1441, is a case about prosecutorial discretion -- and overreach.  Toviave appears to be an unsavory character, but his conduct didn't actually violate the federal statute under which he was charged.  Happily, Judges Rogers (writing), Sutton, and Suhrheinrich do not trust "the discretion of prosecutors" to protect law abiding citizens from similarly misplaced prosecutions.

The essential facts are as follows:
Toviave brought four young relatives from Togo to live with him in Michigan. After they arrived, Toviave made the children cook, clean, and do the laundry. He also occasionally made the children babysit for his girlfriend and relatives. Toviave would beat the children if they misbehaved or failed to follow one of Toviave’s many rules. 
Federal prosecutors in Detroit charged Toviave with visa fraud, mail fraud, and forced labor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589. Toviave pled guilty to the fraud charges but went to trial on the forced labor charges and was convicted.

While calling the defendant's conduct "deplorable" and "reprehensible," the Sixth Circuit found that prosecutors were wrong to make a federal case out of what appeared to be nothing more than child abuse --"a state crime, but not a federal crime."

The court explained,
The government’s interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589 would make a federal crime of the exercise of these innocuous, widely accepted parental rights. Take a hypothetical parent who requires his child to take out the garbage, make his bed, and mow the lawn. The child is quarrelsome and occasionally refuses to do his chores. In response, the child’s parent sternly warns the child, and if the child still refuses, spanks him. The child then goes about doing his chores. There is no principled way to distinguish between that sort of hypothetical labor and what Toviave made the children do in this case. 
The court drew heavily from Bond v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 2077 (2014), in which the Supreme Court "recently reemphasized that we should be cautious in inferring Congressional intent to criminalize activity traditionally regulated by the states."  In Bond, the government argued that the defendant's conduct -- which amounted to "garden-variety assault" between spouses, albeit with a chemical weapon -- fell within the "very broad scope of the chemical weapon statute."  But due to the "deeply serious consequences of adopting such a boundless reading" of the statute, the Supreme Court disagreed and vacated the conviction.  The Sixth Circuit found "[t]he reasoning of the Supreme Court appears to apply directly to Toviave's case."

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