If you have been charged with committing a federal crime, it may be critical for you to determine whether your supposed criminal activity affected interstate or foreign commerce.
That critical determination was made in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Jones versus the United States. In the Jones case, Mr. Jones threw a Molotov cocktail through a window into a home located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The home was owned and occupied by Jones' cousin. Although no one was physically injured in the resulting fire, the blaze severely damaged the house.
Jones was subsequently indicted for the federal crime of arson. The arson statute that he was charged with violating states in part that "whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years . . . ."
Jones' argued that an owner-occupied residence which is not used for any commercial purpose (such as the residence he set on fire) does not qualify as property which is "used in" commerce or commerce-affecting activity. Burning down such a dwelling does not, therefore, violate the federal arson statute.
The lawyer representing the United States countered Jones' argument by stating that the home Jones set on fire was constantly used in at least three activities affecting commerce, those three activities being:
1. The owner of the Indiana home used his house as collateral to obtain and secure a mortgage from an Oklahoma lender; the lender, in turn, used the property as security for the home loan.
2. The homeowner used the residence to obtain a casualty insurance policy from a Wisconsin insurer.
3. The owner of the home used his house to receive natural gas from sources outside Indiana.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Jones for the following four reasons:
1. The federal arson statute should not be interpreted to make virtually every arson in the United States a federal crime.
2. The federal arson statute covers only property that is currently used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce.
3. The home belonging to Jones' cousin was not used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce. Rather, it was simply a dwelling place that was used for normal family living.
4. Congress intended that cases like Jones' case should be prosecuted under State arson statutes, not under the federal arson statute.