Justice Wins in Bomber Case
In an 8-1 decision (which generally counts as a smackdown), the Supreme Court ruled today against Ahmed Ressam and its favorite bete noir, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ressam is known to many as the "Millennium bomber," because he tried to sneak across the U.S.-Canada border with explosives to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999. But for the alert personnel manning the Customs checkpoint, Ressam might have made it. Federal prosecutors subsequently threw the book at him, charging him with every felony they could conjure out of Title 18, including making a false statement on his Customs form and carrying explosives during that felony.
But a lot hinged on the definition of "during."
The statute in question reads:
(1)â€‚uses fire or an explosive to commit any felony which may be prosecuted in a court of the United States, or
(2)â€‚carries an explosive during the commission of any felony which may be prosecuted in a court of the United States,
including a felony which provides for an enhanced punishment if committed by the use of a deadly or dangerous weapon or device shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such felony, be sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years.
On appeal, Ressam's lawyers argued that he could only be guilty if the act of carrying explosives somehow related to the underlying felony (lying on the customs form). The 9th Circuit agreed, citing gun-possession caselaw that required possession to be "during and in relation to" the basic offense. Justice Department lawyers disagreed, saying the plain language of the statute only required the possession of explosives "during" the felony -- regardless of whether the explosives played a role in the act.
Unfortunately for Ressam and the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court wasn't having any of it -- maybe because the justices couldn't quite figure out how someone would use explosives while lying on their customs form (and didn't think it relevant anyway). Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the high court's liberal members and a noted advocate for civil liberties, arrived at this conclusion:
It is undisputed that the items hidden in respondent's car were "explosives."... It is also undisputed that respondent was "carr[ying]" those explosives when he knowingly made false statements to a customs official, and that those statements violated Â§1001 (1994 ed., Supp. V).
There is no need to consult dictionary definitions of the word "during" in order to arrive at the conclusion that respondent engaged in the precise conduct described in Â§844(h)(2) (1994 ed.). The term "during" denotes a temporal link; that is surely the most natural reading of the word as used in the statute. Because respondent's carrying of the explosives was contemporaneous with his violation of Â§1001, he carried them "during" that violation.
What does this decision mean?
Symbolically, it's an important win for the Justice Department. Attorney General Michael Mukasey personally argued this case before the Supreme Court, and this puts a big feather in his cap. It also puts the Supreme Court stamp of approval on one of the Justice Department's most successful terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 -- something that is sure to provide a much-needed shot in the arm for Justice Department morale.
This decision also shows that old-fashioned police work, coupled with old-fashioned throw-the-book-at-'em prosecutorial work, can win in a terrorism case -- something that may undercut arguments to shift terrorism prosecutions to special military commissions or national security courts. Cases like the United States vs. Ressam, United States vs. McVeigh, and United States vs. Yousef show that the U.S. federal criminal system can effectively handle cases involving international and domestic terrorism -- and do so in a just, transparent and legitimate manner.
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