Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848; 120 S. Ct. 1904; 146 L. Ed. 2d 902 (2000)

Facts—A section of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 made it a federal crime to damage a building “used in interstate or foreign commerce.” Dewey Jones threw a Molotov cocktail through his cousin’s house, not injuring him, but causing extensive damage. He was convicted in a U.S. District Court in Indiana for violating the federal law, a decision affirmed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Question—Does the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 cover damage to property used as a private residence?

Decision—No, such property does not fall under congressional regulation of interstate commerce.

Reasons—J. Ginsburg (9–0). Ginsburg noted that the language of the federal statute applied to structures “used in” commercial activities. This house was a private residence, and the government’s attempts to tie the property to commercial use are weak. It is not sufficient that its owner used the house as col[1]lateral to secure a loan, that he had an out-of-state insurance policy, or that he used out-of-state natural gas. The house was used as a private residence and not as part of a “trade or business.” The precedent in United States. v. Lopez (1995) was thus relevant. To utilize the government’s construction in this case would be to obliterate the words “used in.” Where possible, the Court should construe legislation so as not to displace matters of criminal law upon which states had already legislated.

J. Stevens’s concurrence likewise argued that congressional laws should not be used to preempt state laws, where such an intention was not expressly stated. J. Thomas’s concurrence reserved judgment as to whether the law in question could be constitutionally applied “to all buildings used for commercial activities.”

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