Jones v. United States

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In Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that the express terms of the statute and principles of federalism established in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), required reversal of a conviction for arson of an owner-occupied private residence falls within 18 U.S.C. § 844(i)'s compass.

Construing the statute's text, the Court held that an owner-occupied residence not used for any commercial purpose does not qualify as property "used in" commerce or commerce-affecting activity; arson of such a dwelling, therefore, is not subject to federal prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 844(i). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the Court majority, held that construction of § 844(i) is reinforced by the Court's opinion in United States v. Lopez.

In a concurrence by Justice John Paul Stevens, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, they stated:

"It also seems appropriate, however, to emphasize the kinship between our well-established presumption against federal pre-emption of state law, see Ray v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 435 U.S. 151, 157, 55 L. Ed. 2d 179, 98 S. Ct. 988 (1978), and our reluctance to "believe Congress intended to authorize federal intervention in local law enforcement in a marginal case such as this." United States v. Altobella, 442 F.2d 310, 316 (CA7 1971). The fact that petitioner received a sentence of 35 years in prison when the maximum penalty for the comparable state offense was only 10 years, Ind. Code §§ 35-43-1-1, 35-50-2-5 (1993), illustrates how a criminal law like this may effectively displace a policy choice made by the State. Even when Congress has undoubted power to pre-empt local law, we have wisely decided that "unless Congress conveys its purpose clearly, it will not be deemed to have significantly changed the federal-state balance." United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 349, 30 L. Ed. 2d 488, 92 S. Ct. 515 (1971). For this reason, I reiterate my firm belief that we should interpret narrowly federal criminal laws that overlap with state authority unless congressional intention to assert its jurisdiction is plain."[1]