Monday, January 28, 2019

Why is this case in federal court?

“Why is this case in federal court?” a Detroit federal district judge asked me when I was arguing my a motion to suppress evidence. The question was not germane to the motion, but it was not frivolous either. There are so many federal laws that overlap with state laws, so sometimes it’s worth asking what exactly the federal hook is.

The choice of whether to prosecute someone in federal or state court lies with prosecutors. Nothing prevents both jurisdictions to prosecute someone. (At least for now. The Supreme Court is set to decide whether to overrule the rule that allows subsequent federal and state prosecutions, but this change of course seems unlikely.) Often those charged in federal court often face stiffer penalties.

Assault is an offense that is more often or not prosecuted in state court. But 18 U.S.C. §§ 111(a)(1) and (b) federally criminalize forcibly assaulting, resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating, or interfering with a person assisting officers and employees of the United States, while that person was engaged in the performance of official duties, and in doing so, using a dangerous weapon. But who are people federal officers and employees? That was the question of United States v. Bedford, one of the Sixth Circuit’s latest criminal cases.

In what appears to have been an extreme case of road rage, Bedford made the unfortunate decision to fire two shots into the truck of a man who worked for P&R Trucking on a day he was carrying mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Fortunately, the driver was shaken, but not injured.

Bedford was prosecuted in federal court. His lawyer asked the question—“Why is this in federal court?”—and filed a motion to dismiss the indictment for lack of jurisdiction.

The outcome turned on the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 1114, which defines when someone is assisting federal workers. Applying the “plain meaning” of the word “assist,” the Sixth Circuit held that this contract worker qualified as “a person assisting a federal officer or employee in the performance of official duties.” The reasoning was straightforward. The USPS is a federal agency. If an employee of P&R Trucking had not been delivering mail under contract, then a USPS employee would have to do so. And so, the driver was helping USPS achieve its objective. The Court threw in one final reminder: it does not matter whether Bedford knew the truck driver was working for the federal government. All that matters is that his target was assisting federal employees.

The upshot: the federal court had jurisdiction over this case. The downside: Bedford is subject to federal maximums (20 years here) and the federal guidelines, which tend to recommend very long sentences.

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