When should local crimes become federal cases?

In arguments today, high court considers whether arson should be a 'national' crime.

Nothing sells in Congress quite like a get-tough-on-crime campaign.

Carjackings, for example, have become a federal offense - never mind that every state in the nation already had enough criminal laws to prosecute any and all carjackers within their borders.

This congressional tendency - to expand federal authority into areas that had been the exclusive realm of state and local law-enforcement agencies - has inundated US courts with newly federalized local crimes.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who in the past has pointedly criticized this trend, and his eight colleagues at the US Supreme Court now have an opportunity to address the issue. Today, the high court considers whether Congress overstepped its authority by extending federal jurisdiction to the crime of arson.

The case involves Dewey Jones of Fort Wayne, Ind., who threw a Molotov cocktail into his cousin's unoccupied living room following a dispute between the two. The case was initially handled by local police and fire officials. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took over the investigation and, quite literally, made a federal case out of it.

Rather than being charged under state arson laws, Mr. Jones was indicted and convicted under a federal law originally passed to battle the threat of mobsters using arson to expand their criminal empires.

Jones was a criminal all right, but was he the caliber of lawbreaker that justifies intervention by the national government? Instead of the moderate jail term he'd have served under state law, Jones got 35 years in prison.

Lawyers for Jones argue that Congress has no business regulating local crimes. Under the US Constitution, most criminal law enforcement is to be handled at the state and local levels. Authors of the US Constitution gave Congress exclusive authority over issues of national concern, such as the country's economy and trade among and between the states. But over the years, Congress has used its authority under the so-called commerce clause to pass a range of federal statutes, including some that duplicate state criminal laws.

Those who argue on Congress's behalf say federal lawmakers can exert this authority to grapple with the complex problems of a modern nation. Federal prosecutors, too, prefer to have the flexibility of many laws from which to choose while investigating the conduct of suspects.

Others see the trend as evidence of the erosion of the system established by the Founding Fathers to keep the national government from becoming a dominating force.

"The whole point is that we are supposed to have a federal government that is supreme in its sphere, but its sphere is limited," says Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at the University of Illinois who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the libertarian Cato Institute.

"There are a lot of crimes that are appropriately handled by the federal government," says Mr. Rotunda. But others should be left to the exclusive jurisdiction of the states, he says. "For example, in a typical barroom brawl there would seem no reason to call in the FBI."

The high court faces three choices. It can uphold Jones's conviction, thus endorsing the continued federalization of local crimes. Or it can uphold the federal arson law itself and decide whether it was simply misapplied in the Jones case. Or the justices can examine whether Congress had no authority under the Constitution to pass a federal arson law in the first place.

Many conservative legal analysts hope the court takes the third option. They see the case as an opportunity for the court to set down clear guidelines as to when Congress is abusing its lawmaking authority under the commerce clause.

In a 1995 landmark decision, the high court struck down a federal law that barred guns from schools. In that decision, the majority said Congress could pass laws under its commerce-clause authority only when it was regulating activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. A local crime, like bringing a gun into a school, is beyond the federal government's limited jurisdiction, the court ruled

Some analysts see the Jones case as an opportunity for the court to take another stand against federal encroachment in local law enforcement. If it does, the case could emerge as one of the more important of the term.

Prosecutors in the Jones case say the fire Jones caused had an impact on interstate commerce - that the house was mortgaged to an out-of-state company, the natural gas piped into the house came from other states, and the house was insured by a firm with headquarters in another state.

Others say that it is not enough of a link. "The arson statute is almost a joke among criminal lawyers because of its reach," says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee School of Law. "A lot of people feel the bounds of reasonableness have been overstepped."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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