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United States: Supreme Court Rules Local Crimes Not Covered by Statute Implementing Chemical Weapons Convention

(June 12, 2014) The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. implementing statute for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not apply to local crimes. (Bond v. United States, No. 12-158, (June 2, 2014), Supreme Court website.)

The United States is a party to the CWC (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (in force from Apr. 29, 1997), Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons website), an international treaty requiring member States to prohibit persons within their respective jurisdictions from violating it. (Id., art. VII(1)(a).) To implement the CWC, the United States enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998 (Public Law No. 115-277, div. I, 112 Stat. 2681-856). That statute defines a “chemical weapon” as a “toxic chemical … except where intended for a purpose not prohibited under [the Act]” (22 U.S.C. § 6701(1) (last visited June 11, 2014)), and makes it illegal to “possess, or use … any chemical weapon” (18 U.S.C. § 229(a)(1) (last visited June 11, 2014).)

Petitioner Carol Anne Bond, a Pennsylvania microbiologist, stole a toxic chemical from her employer and used it to inflict minor injuries on another woman who had had an affair with her husband. Federal prosecutors charged Bond, among other things, with violating the Implementation Act by possessing and using a chemical weapon. The district court denied Bond’s motion to dismiss the chemical weapon charges. Bond entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed, raising both constitutional and statutory arguments. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected her appeal, ruling that the plain language of the Implementation Act covered Bond’s actions and upholding that statute’s constitutionality. (United States v. Bond, 681 F.3d 149 (3d Cir. 2012).) The Supreme Court accepted the case and reversed the Third Circuit’s decision. (Bond v. United States, No. 12-158, supra.)

In its opinion, the Court first stated that it would adhere to the principle that it will avoid a constitutional question where there is another ground on which to dispose of a case. (Id. slip op. at 9.) The Court also noted that there was no need for it to interpret the scope of the CWC, because the Implementation Act, not the Convention, governed the case. (Id. at 10.)

Turning to that statute, the Court said it should be interpreted in a manner “consistent with principles of federalism inherent in our constitutional structure” (id.), which it said are part of “the backdrop of certain unexpressed presumptions” against which Congress legislates (id. at 11-12) and which could be invoked to resolve statutory ambiguity (id. at 14). Unlike the Third Circuit, which found the statute’s language clear, the Court found such ambiguity in the “improbably broad reach” of the Implementation Act’s definition of “chemical weapon” (id.), and the implications of applying the statute to the “unremarkable local offense” (id. at 2) at issue here.

In light of basic federalism principles, the Court determined that absent a “clear indication that Congress meant to reach purely local crimes,” it would interpret the Implementation Act to avoid “intrud[ing] on the police power of the States.” (Id.) The Court found the Implementation Act to lack any such clear indication. (Id. at 15-17.) It concluded that “the global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the Federal Government to … treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon” (id. at 20-21), and therefore the Court reversed the Third Circuit’s judgment.