United States v. James William Hill III. (4th Cir. June 2019)

The Federal Docket

August 25, 2019

Hate Crimes – A defendant “substantially affects” interstate commerce, thereby triggering federal jurisdiction under the Commerce Clause, by assaulting a victim and interfering with the victim’s packaging and shipping of products intended for interstate commerce.

At issue was whether the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, codified as 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2), allowed a defendant to be convicted for violently assaulting a gay coworker who had been preparing packages intended for interstate sale and shipment. Specifically, the Court held that this conduct fell under Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause.

The defendant, a co-worker with the victim at an Amazon “fulfillment center,” admitted that he attacked the victim because the victim was gay. Notably, Amazon briefly shut down the area of the incident but did not miss “any critical pull times” or packaging deadlines since other areas absorbed the work. A defense expert testified that the incident did not affect Amazon’s overall performance.

The district court dismissed the indictment but was reversed in an unpublished opinion, though the opinion indicated that the Government would have to provide evidence that the defendant’s conduct “sufficiently affected interstate commerce.” The Government pivoted to another theory for federal jurisdiction, arguing that the defendant’s assault “interfered with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim was engaged at the time of conduct.” The district court granted the defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal after trial, holding that the defendant had not substantially affected interstate commerce.

On appeal, the Court recounted the broad authority the Government has under the Commerce Clause to prosecute federal hate crimes, including crimes that impede the movement of members of a targeted group, prevent them from purchasing goods, or prevent them from participating in other commercial activity.

Noting that this was an issue of first impression in this Circuit and any other, the Court held that the defendant “substantially affected” interstate commerce by assaulting the victim and interfering with the victim’s packaging and shipping of products intended for interstate commerce.

The Court cited the low standard for invoking jurisdiction under the Commerce Clause, which applies to violent conduct that has even a “minimal effect” on interstate commerce. The Court noted that Congress’s power had been upheld in prosecutions for arson of commercial buildings, possession of firearms, and Hobbs Act robberies targeting drug proceeds. The Court added for good measure that, since it was undisputed that Congress can regulate the packaging and shipment of goods at fulfilment centers, Congress is similarly empowered to regulate violent conduct affecting those actions. Also significant was that the Hate Crimes Act required that a jury find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant affected interstate commerce.

Dissenting, Judge Agee wrote that the “root activity” in this case, a “bias-motivated punch,” was not an inherently economic activity within the scope of Congress’s Commerce power. He also pointed out that the text of the Hate Crimes Act does not track the three pronged approach to invoking jurisdiction under the Commerce Clause (channels, instrumentalities, and substantial effect) and was thus not a valid exercise of that power.

Appeal from the Eastern District of Virginia

Opinion by Wynn, joined by Motz

Dissent by Agee

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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