Fowler v. United States

PETITIONER: Charles Andrew Fowler, aka Man
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division

DOCKET NO.: 10-5443
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 563 US (2011)
GRANTED: Nov 15, 2010
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2011
DECIDED: May 26, 2011

ADVOCATES:
Stephen M. Crawford - for the petitioner
Sarah E. Harrington - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Charles Andrew Fowler shot and killed Christopher Todd Horner for trying to interfere with his plan to rob a bank with four other men. Horner had approached Fowler's accomplices as they sat in a stolen Oldsmobile, decked out in black clothes and gloves. Fowler, who had stepped out of the car to use cocaine, snuck up behind Horner, grabbed his gun, forced him to get on his knees and shot him in the back of the head. One of Fowler's accomplices later implicated him in the murder, and a jury convicted Fowler of killing Horner with the intent to prevent him from communicating information about a federal offense. He was sentenced to life in prison, plus 10 years. Fowler claimed the government failed to prove that a federal investigation would have been likely, and that Horner would have transferred the information to a federal officer or judge. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling.

Question

To prove a criminal violation of the federal witness tampering statute when a defendant allegedly kills a witness, must the government prove that the victim would have provided information regarding a crime to a court or a law enforcement officer?

Media for Fowler v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 29, 2011 in Fowler v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 26, 2011 in Fowler v. United States

Stephen G. Breyer:

The second case is Fowler.

And we -- we thought the last term was technical to try this one.

The federal witness tampering statute makes it a crime to "kill another person, with intent to prevent the communication to a law enforcement officer of the United States, communication of information relating to the possible commission of a set -- of a Federal offense".

A separate provision adds that the Government need not prove the defendant's state of mind, remember you had to prove his intent, but you need not prove his state of mind with respect to whether the officer, that's the person whom the victim was prevented from communicating with because the defendant killed him.

Alright, so, he was prevented with com -- you don't have to prove whether that officer worked for the United States, that's -- you don't have to prove that.

But what, if anything, does the Government have to show about the likelihood that that victim, if he had not been killed, if he had decided to report the crime would really have communicated to a federal officer.

That's the problem.

Here, roughly speaking, the defendant killed the victim, who was a local policeman, intending the -- he intended the -- the defendant in killing him to prevent that victim from reporting about a bank robbery he was planning, the killer, to any officer.

The defendant began simplifying, I think, he wasn't thinking, "I'm going to stop him from communicating with a federal policeman."

He wasn't thinking, "I'm going to stop him from communicating with a local policeman."

He was just thinking, "I don't want him to communicate, period."

Not with anyone.

And he just left it at that.

So now, what does the Government, in that situation, have to do to show that that anyone included a federal officer?

Now, you could argue that the Government has to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim would've communicated with a federal officer.

But we think that burden is too strict and that's because the statute penalizes killing with a particular intent, namely, an intent to prevent a communication with a federal officer, and you can easily have an intent even if there is great doubt that the communication would ever taken place.

Think of a homeowner who puts up shutters with the intent of preventing hurricane damage.

Now, he has that intent even if there is doubt, a lot of doubt about whether there will really be a hurricane.

On the other hand, one might argue that the Government need only show that it is possible that the victim would have communicated with a federal police officer.

But we think that burden is too lenient.

It would expand the scope of the federal witness tampering statute to include many situations where state witness tampering is -- a state witness tampering is really the issue.

And that's because many state crimes are also federal crimes, and communication with the federal officer about a federal crime is almost always possible.

We do not believe Congress would've intended an expansion of the statute's scope of this kind.

Finally, one might argue the Government must show there was a reasonable likelihood that the victim would've communicated with a federal police officer.

We find this standard not too strict, not too lenient but just right.

And for reasons which we set out at greater length than our opinion, we adopt that standard.

We vacate the decision below and we remand the case.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Alito has filed the dissenting opinion which Justice Ginsburg has joined.