JONES V. United States

This is an audio case brief of Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents

FACTS

On February 23, 1998, Dewey Jones tossed a Molotov cocktail through a window into a home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The home belonged to, and was occupied by his cousin. A fire broke out, but luckily, no one was injured in the ensuing fire. The blaze however, severely damaged the home.

A federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment charging Jones with arson, under 18 U.S.C. § 844(i), using a destructive device during and in relation to a crime of violence (the arson),  under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); and making an illegal destructive device, under 26 U.S.C. § 5861(f).

Jones was tried under these indictments and convicted by a jury on all three counts. The District Court sentenced him to a total prison term of 35 years, to be followed by five years of supervised release. The court also ordered Jones to pay $ 77,396.87 to the insurer of the damaged home as restitution for its loss.

Procedural History:

Jones appealed the court’s ruling, and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review his case.

ISSUE

The issue is  whether arson of an owner-occupied private residence falls within § 844(i)’s compass.

RULE

U.S.C § 8441(i) reads in relevant part;

Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both . . . .”

APPLICATION

Jones argued that 18 U.S.C. § 8441(i) when applied to the arson of a private residence, exceeds the authority vested in congress under the commerce clause of the constitution, Art. I, § 8, cl. 3.

He argued that  because his cousin’s home was used as private residence, not a commercial property, congress cannot regulate such activity. Because cases of such genre should be left to the states to regulate.

The court held in Russel v. United States, 471, U.S. 858 (1985),  that U.S.C § 8441(i) applies to buildings used for rental purposes. In Russel, the owner of a two-unit apartment building attempted to set fire to the building. He rented this property out to tenants, earned rental income from the building, and treated it as business property for tax purposes. The court found that the building was used for commercial purposes and therefore U.S.C § 8441(i) was applicable.

The proper inquiry the court stated, is into the function of the building itself and then a determination of whether that function affects interstate commerce.

The Government urges that the Fort Wayne, Indiana residence into which Jones tossed a Molotov cocktail was constantly “used” in at least three “activities affecting commerce.” First, the homeowner “used” the dwelling as collateral to obtain and secure a mortgage from an Oklahoma lender; the lender, in turn, “used” the property as security for the home loan. Second, the homeowner “used” the residence to obtain a casualty insurance policy from a Wisconsin insurer. That policy, the Government points out, safeguarded the interests of the homeowner and the mortgagee. Third, the homeowner “used” the dwelling to receive natural gas from sources outside Indiana.

The court disagreed with the governments analysis because the term “used” is most sensibly read to mean an active employment for commercial purposes, and not merely a passive, passing, or past connection to commerce. The government did not allege that the home involved in this case served as a home office or the locus of any commercial undertaking. The home’s only “active employment.” So far as the record reveals was for the everyday living of the Jones’s cousin and his family.

CONCLUSION

The court concluded that § 844(i) is not soundly read to make virtually every arson in the country a federal offense. The provision covers only property currently used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce. The home owned and occupied by petitioner Jones’s cousin was not so used — it was a dwelling place used for everyday family living. As we read § 844(i), Congress left cases of this genre to the law enforcement authorities of the States.

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