Jones v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Hawaii Office of Elections

DOCKET NO.: 99-5739
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 529 US 848 (2000)
ARGUED: Mar 21, 2000
DECIDED: May 22, 2000

Donald M. Falk - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1998, Dewey Jones, of Detroit, tossed a Molotov cocktail into the home of his cousin, James Walker, Jr., in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Walker's home was severely damaged. Subsequently, Jones was convicted in U.S. District Court of violating 18 U.S.C. section 844(i), which makes it a federal crime to "maliciously damage or destroy, means of fire or an explosive, any building... used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce." The Court of Appeals affirmed Jones's conviction. Before both courts, Jones unsuccessfully argued that section 844(i), when applied to the arson of a private residence, exceeds the authority vested in Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.


Does the federal arson statute apply to the arson of a private residence?

Media for Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 2000 in Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 22, 2000 in Jones v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 99-5739, Jones against United States will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Dewey Jones, the defendant petitioner in this case was explosively angry at his cousin as Jones demonstrated by tossing a Molotov cocktail into the cousin’s Indiana home.

No one was injured in the ensuing blaze but the dwelling with severely damages.

For that misconduct Jones was indicted under 18 U.S.C. Section 844(i) which makes it a federal felony to damage or destroy by means of fire or explosion any building used in interstate commerce or in any activity affecting such commerce.

A jury found Jones guilty and he unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Seeking this Court’s review, Jones raised two questions on which Federal Courts have divided: first, does the statute, under which he was convicted Section 844(i), cover arson of a building used by its owner occupant solely for everyday family living?

Second, if the statute does cover the arson of such a private residence, does that coverage exceed the authority Congress has under Article 1 of the Constitution to regulate commerce?

We answer the first question no, and therefore do not reached the second question.

An owner-occupied private residence not used for any commercial purpose, we hold does not qualify as property used in commerce or commerce affecting activity.

Arson of such a dwelling therefore is not subject to federal prosecution under section 844(i), so Jones’ arson conviction must be vacated.

In urging us to sustain the conviction, the government relied on the breadth of the statutory terms affecting commerce.

Those words, when they are unqualified, signal Congress’ intent to invoke its whole Commerce Clause authority, but here the term is qualified a building to fit within the statute’s compass must be used in a commerce affecting activity.

The government points specifically to three commerce affecting uses of the home into which Jones threw a Molotov cocktail.

Jones’ cousin, in the government’s view, used the home to secure a mortgage, to obtain a home owners insurance policy, and to receive natural gas.

These connections we conclude were not the kind that Congress had in mind.

The word “used” in legislation as in conversations ordinarily signifies active employment, it surely is not the common perception that a private owner occupied residence is used in the activity of receiving natural gas, a mortgage, or an insurance policy.

The only active employment of the home in this case so far as the record reveals, was for the everyday living of Jones’ cousin and his family.

But we to adopt the government’s expansive interpretation of Section 844(i) hardly a building in the land would fall outside the federal statute’s domain under Section 844(i) limiting language used in any commerce affecting activity would have no significance.

Our reading of Section 844(i) is reinforced by the principle that constitutionally doubtful construction should be avoided where possible.

This Court's 1995 decision in Lopez v. United States held that a statute making it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1000 feet of school exceeded Congress’ power to regulate commerce.

Lopez brought to the fore concerns expressed in earlier cases about turning traditionally local criminal conduct into matters for federal enforcement.

Our construction of Section 844(i) is also supported by interpretive guides in the clear statement category ambiguity concerning the ambit of a criminal statute should be resolved in favor of lenity, when choice must be made between two readings of what Congress has made criminal, the harsher alternative should not be chosen unless Congress has spoken in definite language, and when the Congress has not spoken unambiguously courts will not attribute to the legislature a design to alter the federal-state balance in the prosecutions of crime.

The opinion is unanimous.

In addition, Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas joins and Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Scalia joins.