Federal Corner: The Government Overreached and Got Spanked by the Supreme Court – By F. R. Buck Files Jr.


Prosecutorial discretion can be a wonderful thing. Over the years, Texas and federal prosecutors have listened to my pleas for leniency and—on a bunch of occasions—have chosen either not to indict or to charge my client with the commission of a lesser offense. Sometimes, though, prosecutorial discretion can go the other way and a client can receive a harsh sentence that is simply not appropriate under the facts of the case. We’ve all seen that.

On November 5, 2013, the Justices of the Supreme Court saw that. On June 2, 2014, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, held that the statute imposing criminal penalties for possessing and using a chemical weapon, and implementing the International Convention on Chemical Weapons Treaty, did not reach the unremarkable local offense of an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover. In essence, the Court said that the Government prosecutor had overreached. Bond v. United States, ___ S.Ct. ___, 2014 WL 2440534 (2014). Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Scalia joined, and Justice Alito joined in part. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. The Court reversed and remanded.

Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion reads, in part, as follows:

[The Offense Conduct]

Petitioner Carol Anne Bond is a microbiologist from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. In 2006, Bond’s closest friend, Myrlinda Haynes, announced that she was pregnant. When Bond discovered that her husband was the child’s father, she sought revenge against Haynes. Bond stole a quantity of 10–chloro–10H–phenoxarsine (an arsenic-based compound) from her employer, a chemical manufacturer. She also ordered a vial of potassium dichromate (a chemical commonly used in printing photographs or cleaning laboratory equipment) on Amazon.com. Both chemicals are toxic to humans and, in high enough doses, potentially lethal. It is undisputed, however, that Bond did not intend to kill Haynes. She instead hoped that Haynes would touch the chemicals and develop an uncomfortable rash.

        Between November 2006 and June 2007, Bond went to Haynes’ home on at least 24 occasions and spread the chemicals on her car door, mailbox, and door knob. These attempted assaults were almost entirely unsuccessful. The chemicals that Bond used are easy to see, and Haynes was able to avoid them all but once. On that occasion, Haynes suffered a minor chemical burn on her thumb, which she treated by rinsing with water. Haynes repeatedly called the local police to report the suspicious substances, but they took no action. When Haynes found powder on her mailbox, she called the police again, who told her to call the post office. Haynes did so, and postal inspectors placed surveillance cameras around her home. The cameras caught Bond opening Haynes’ mailbox, stealing an envelope, and stuffing potassium dichromate inside the muffler of Haynes’ car.

[At the District Court]

Federal prosecutors naturally charged Bond with two counts of mail theft, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1708. More surprising, they also charged her with two counts of possessing and using a chemical weapon, in violation of section 229(a). Bond moved to dismiss the chemical weapon counts on the ground that section 229 exceeded Congress’ enumerated powers and invaded powers reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment. The District Court denied Bond’s motion. She then entered a conditional guilty plea that reserved her right to appeal. The District Court sentenced Bond to six years in federal prison plus five years of supervised release, and ordered her to pay a $2,000 fine and $9,902.79 in restitution.

[From the Third Circuit to the Supreme Court]

Bond appealed, raising a Tenth Amendment challenge to her conviction. The Government contended that Bond lacked standing to bring such a challenge. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed. We granted certiorari, the Government confessed error, and we reversed. We held that, in a proper case, an individual may “assert injury from governmental action taken in excess of the authority that federalism defines.” Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 2355, 2363–2364, 180 L.Ed.2d 269 (2011) (Bond I ). We “expresse[d] no view on the merits” of Bond’s constitutional challenge. Id., at ___, 131 S.Ct., at 2367.

[Back at the Third Circuit]

On remand, Bond renewed her constitutional argument. She also argued that section 229 does not reach her conduct because the statute’s exception for the use of chemicals for “peaceful purposes” should be understood in contradistinction to the “warlike” activities that the Convention was primarily designed to prohibit. Bond argued that her conduct, though reprehensible, was not at all “warlike.” The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. 681 F.3d 149 (C.A.3 2012). The court acknowledged that the Government’s reading of section 229 would render the statute “striking” in its “breadth” and turn every “kitchen cupboard and cleaning cabinet in America into a potential chemical weapons cache.” Id., at 154, n. 7. But the court nevertheless held that Bond’s use of “‘highly toxic chemicals with the intent of harming Haynes’ can hardly be characterized as ‘peaceful’ under that word’s commonly understood meaning.” Id., at 154 (citation omitted).

        The Third Circuit also rejected Bond’s constitutional challenge to her conviction, holding that section 229 was “necessary and proper to carry the Convention into effect.”


[The Second Trip to the Supreme Court: The Background and the Issue before the Court]

[T]he Second Battle of Arras during World War I… and others like it led to an overwhelming consensus in the international community that toxic chemicals should never again be used as weapons against human beings. Today that objective is reflected in the international Convention on Chemical Weapons, which has been ratified or acceded to by 190 countries. The United States, pursuant to the Federal Government’s constitutionally enumerated power to make treaties, ratified the treaty in 1997. To fulfill the United States’ obligations under the Convention, Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998. The Act makes it a federal crime for a person to use or possess any chemical weapon, and it punishes violators with severe penalties. It is a stat­ute that, like the Convention it implements, deals with crimes of deadly seriousness.

        The question presented by this case is whether the Implementation Act also reaches a purely local crime: an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water. Because our constitutional structure leaves local criminal activity primarily to the States, we have generally declined to read federal law as intruding on that responsibility, unless Congress has clearly indicated that the law should have such reach. The Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act contains no such clear indication, and we accordingly conclude that it does not cover the unremarkable local offense at issue here.


[The Limited Powers of Our National Government]

In our federal system, the National Government possesses only limited powers; the States and the people re­tain the remainder. The States have broad authority to enact legislation for the public good—what we have often called a “police power.” United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 567, 115 S.Ct. 1624, 131 L.Ed.2d 626 (1995). The Federal Government, by contrast, has no such authority and “can exercise only the powers granted to it,” McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405, 4 L.Ed. 579 (1819), including the power to make “all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” the enumerated powers, U.S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 18. For nearly two centuries it has been “clear” that, lacking a police power, “Congress cannot punish felonies generally.” Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 428, 5 L.Ed. 257 (1821). A criminal act committed wholly within a State “cannot be made an offence against the United States, unless it have some relation to the execution of a power of Congress, or to some matter within the jurisdiction of the United States.” United States v. Fox, 95 U.S. 670, 672, 24 L.Ed. 538 (1878).


[The International Convention on Chemical Weapons Treaty]

Section 229 exists to implement the Convention, so we begin with that international agreement. As explained, the Convention’s drafters intended for it to be a comprehensive ban on chemical weapons. But even with its broadly worded definitions, we have doubts that a treaty about chemical weapons has anything to do with Bond’s conduct. The Convention, a product of years of worldwide study, analysis, and multinational negotiation, arose in response to war crimes and acts of terrorism. See Kenyon & Feakes 6. There is no reason to think the sovereign nations that ratified the Convention were interested in anything like Bond’s common law assault.


[Why the Government’s Theory of the Case Was Rejected]

Bond was prosecuted under section 229, and the statute—unlike the Convention—must be read consistent with principles of federalism inherent in our constitutional structure.

        In the Government’s view, the conclusion that Bond “knowingly” “use[d]” a “chemical weapon” in violation of section 229(a) is simple: The chemicals that Bond placed on Haynes’ home and car are “toxic chemical[s]” as defined by the statute, and Bond’s attempt to assault Haynes was not a “peaceful purpose.” §§ 229F(1), (8), (7). The problem with this interpretation is that it would “dramatically intrude[ ]upon traditional state criminal jurisdiction,” and we avoid reading statutes to have such reach in the absence of a clear indication that they do. United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 350, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488 (1971).


[The Court’s Conclusion]

We conclude that, in this curious case, we can insist on a clear indication that Congress meant to reach purely local crimes, before interpreting the statute’s expansive language in a way that intrudes on the police power of the States. See See Bass, supra, at 349.


We do not find any such clear indication in section 229. “Chemical weapon” is the key term that defines the statute’s reach, and it is defined extremely broadly. But that general definition does not constitute a clear statement that Congress meant the statute to reach local criminal conduct.

        In fact, a fair reading of section 229 suggests that it does not have as expansive a scope as might at first appear.


In sum, the global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the Federal Government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon. There is no reason to suppose that Congress—in implementing the Convention on Chemical Weapons—thought otherwise.


[The Government’s History of Prosecutions under Section 229]

[W]ith the exception of this unusual case, the Federal Government itself has not looked to section 229 to reach purely local crimes. The Government has identified only a handful of prosecutions that have been brought under this section. Brief in Opposition 27, n. 5. Most of those involved either terrorist plots or the possession of extremely dangerous substances with the potential to cause severe harm to many people. See United States v. Ghane, 673 F.3d 771 (C.A.8 2012) (defendant possessed enough potassium cyanide to kill 450 people); United States v. Crocker, 260 Fed.Appx. 794 (C.A.6 2008) (defendant attempted to acquire VX nerve gas and chlorine gas as part of a plot to attack a federal courthouse); United States v. Krar, 134 Fed.Appx. 662 (C.A.5 2005) (per curiam ) (defendant possessed sodium cyanide); United States v. Fries, 2012 WL 689157 (D.Ariz., Feb. 28, 2012) (defendant set off a homemade chlorine bomb in the victim’s driveway, requiring evacuation of a residential neighborhood). The Federal Government undoubtedly has a substantial interest in enforcing criminal laws against assassination, terrorism, and acts with the potential to cause mass suffering. Those crimes have not traditionally been left predominantly to the States, and nothing we have said here will disrupt the Government’s authority to prosecute such offenses.

[The Statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Would Support a Prosecution of Bond]

It is also clear that the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (and every other State) are sufficient to prosecute Bond. Pennsylvania has several statutes that would likely cover her assault. See 18 Pa. Cons.Stat. §§ 2701 (2012) (simple assault), 2705 (reckless endangerment), 2709 (harassment). And state authorities regularly enforce these laws in poisoning cases. See, e.g., Gamiz, Family Survives Poisoned Burritos, Allentown, Pa., Morning Call, May 18, 2013 (defendant charged with assault, reckless endangerment, and harassment for feeding burritos poisoned with prescription medication to her husband and daughter); Cops: Man Was Poisoned Over 3 Years, Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot News, Aug. 12, 2012, p. A11 (defendant charged with assault and reckless endangerment for poisoning a man with eye drops over three years so that “he would pay more attention to her”).

My Thoughts

  • Bond’s lawyer represented her well by asserting a Tenth Amend­ment argument at every opportunity. Great lawyering.
  • The Government lawyer who wrote the Government’s Brief in Opposition should have been concerned that the prosecution of Ms. Bond was absolutely different in scope from the other cases prosecuted under Section 229.
  • I have so much fun every month as I try to decide what case to write about because there is always a new issue out there for me. This time, it was one based on the Tenth Amendment. What a kick!
F. R. Buck Files, Jr.
F. R. Buck Files, Jr.
Buck Files is a charter member and former director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He is a member of TDCLA’s Hall of Fame and a former President of the State Bar of Texas. In May, 2016, TDCLA’s Board of Directors named Buck as the author transcendent of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He practices in Tyler with the law firm of Files Harrison, P.C., and can be reached at or (903) 595-3573.

Buck Files is a charter member and former director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He is a member of TDCLA’s Hall of Fame and a former President of the State Bar of Texas. In May, 2016, TDCLA’s Board of Directors named Buck as the author transcendent of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He practices in Tyler with the law firm of Files Harrison, P.C., and can be reached at or (903) 595-3573.

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