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Monday, May 19, 2008

United States v. Ressam - Explosives "in relation to " Any Crime OK

Ressam was arrested in 1997 as part of the alleged Millennium bombing planned for Los Angeles International airport. He attempted to enter the United States by car ferry at Port Angeles, Washington. Hidden in the trunk of his rental car were explosives that he intended to detonate at the Los Angeles International Airport. After the ferry docked, he was questioned by a customs official, who instructed him to complete a customs declaration form, which he did, identifying himself as a Canadian citizen (he is Algerian) named Benni Noris (his name is Ahmed Ressam). He was then directed to a secondary inspection station, where another official performed a search of his car, finding explosives and related items in the car’s spare tire well. Ressam was subsequently convicted of a number of crimes, including the felony of making a false statement to a United States customs official in violation of 18 U. S. C. §1001 and carrying an explosive "during the commission of" that felony in violation of §844(h)(2)(imposing a 10-year sentencing enhancement). The Ninth Circuit reversed his conviction on the latter count because it read the word "during," as used in §844(h)(2), to include a requirement that the explosive be carried "in relation to" the underlying felony. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Ressam was "carrying" those explosives "during" the commission of the false statement, finding that Congress "did not intend to require the Government to establish a relationship between the explosive carried and the underlying felony." Justice Stevens wrote for the majority, rejecting a dictionary definition of "during," using instead the "most natural reading" of the statute. He bolstered the holding with statutory analysis and legislative history. Justice Thomas concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, joined by Justice Scalia, agreeing with only the first part of Justice Stevens’ 3-part decision; their concurrence concludes, simply, that the plain language of the statute answers the question, without the need for any further statutory or historical analysis. Justice Breyer dissented, disagreeing with both the majority decision and the Ninth Circuit holding; his concern stems from the fact that under both approaches a person who legally possesses explosives can be convicted of 844(j) if he does so at the time of a wholly unrelated felony. To avoid this anomaly, he would require a "relevant relation[ship]" between the explosives possession and underlying felony.