Lewis v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-7151
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 155 (1998)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1997
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1998

Frank Granger - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Malcolm L. Stewart - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

While living on the federal Army base Fort Polk, Debra Faye Lewis was charged with the murder of her four year-old daughter. Under the federal Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA), which provides that "whoever within... any [federal enclave], is guilty of any act or omission which, although not made punishable by any enactment of Congress, would be punishable... within the jurisdiction of the State... in which such place is situated, ...shall be guilty of a like offense and subject to like punishment," Lewis' indictment charged a violation of Louisiana's first-degree murder statute. Lewis was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole by the District Court. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the ACA did not apply because Congress made Lewis' acts punishable as federal second-degree murder. The appellate court, however, affirmed Lewis' conviction because the jury had necessarily found all of the requisite elements of federal second-degree murder.


Does the federal Assimilative Crimes Act make Louisiana's first-degree murder statute applicable on a federal Army base located in Louisiana?

Media for Lewis v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1997 in Lewis v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 96-7151, Debra Faye Lewis v. United States.

Mr. Granger.

Frank Granger:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Debra Lewis was charged, tried, and convicted under an assimilated Louisiana murder statute for a crime which was committed on a military reservation in Vernon Parish, Louisiana.

She was not charged nor tried under the appropriate Federal murder statute.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed and reversed the conviction based upon the assimilated Louisiana statute, finding that it did not apply, and that the Assimilative Crimes Act did not allow the prosecutor to assimilate the State statute when, in fact, a Federal murder statute prohibited the conduct for which she was charged.

However, the Fifth Circuit then affirmed the life imprisonment sentence based upon her conviction of second degree Federal murder.

We also contend that the affirmance of the sentence is harmful and prejudicial to Debra Lewis because under the sentencing guidelines applicable to Federal second degree murder, such a sentence could not be imposed.

For purposes of this argument, the Assimilative Crimes Act is a longstanding Federal statute which merely is a gap filling and a loophole closing statute.

The purpose of the statute was to prevent and allow the Federal Government to prosecute criminal actions on military reservations on territory under exclusive Federal jurisdiction when, by assimilating a State criminal statute if, and only if, there was no Federal statute which made the conduct sort to be prosecuted--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I'm not sure that's the backdrop against which that was adopted.

I think there was considerable sentiment at the time that basically State law ought to apply to crimes committed in areas that the Federal Government was administering, and what do you think our policy should be in general, to find that State law should apply where possible, because that is the backdrop under which this statute was passed in the first place.

Frank Granger:

--Yes, Justice O'Connor, I under... I agree with you, but once the Assimilative Crimes Act was adopted initially in approximately 1825, it was because Congress at that particular point in time had not taken a very proactive role in adopting criminal statutes, so what happened was, you'd have a person commit an act or a criminal... or a crime on a military reservation or in the territories and then be able to flaunt and get away with it.

So as Justice Story has been noted to say, that necessity... in fact, he was one of the authors of part of the Assimilative Crimes Act, along with Daniel Webster, in saying that we have to allow these crimes to be punished and close... my words, close the loopholes or fill the gap.

There is great sentiment to apply State law on these reservations.

However, Congress has spoken.

In 18 U.S.C. section 13, which I have at page 5 of my brief, the original brief, it says, whoever is guilty of any act or omission which, although not made punishable by any enactment of Congress.

So in times past, and in this particular case before 1909, when there was no Federal murder statute, clearly the Government would have been faced with a proposition that it couldn't prosecute for murder, so obviously they had to assimilate the State crime and say we can't allow you to get away with this, and so we'll take the State crime, and by section 13, it becomes a Federal crime and we prosecute it.

I think in this particular case we get to the point of whether the particular act is made punishable by an enactment of Congress, and I think that the statutes are clear again.

Congress has adopted the Federal murder statute at 18 U.S.C. section 1111, which you'll find at page 5 and 6 of my brief.

This statute clearly sets forth a comprehensive scheme of murder.

As in most States, there's a difference between first degree and second degree murder.

Congress has done the same thing.

Congress has found that there would be first degree murders, which are generally murders, or killing of human beings with malice aforethought, but also premeditated murders such as poison, lying in wait, or again they have another group of murders that are specifically listed as first degree murders, which is arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse, or sexual abuse, burglary, or robbery.

David H. Souter:

Was that true in 1993?

I don't know the answer to this question.

Did that, the specific breakdown come in the 1994 amendments?

Frank Granger:

There may have been an amendment, Your Honor, Justice Souter, as to the aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, but the other provisions were specifically--

They were there.

Frank Granger:

--However, the statute is also clear, it says any other murder, and that is explicit, that are not listed as first degree murder is murder in the second degree.