Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 99-5739. Argued March 21, 2000—Decided May 22, 2000

Petitioner Jones tossed a Molotov cocktail into a home owned and occupied by his cousin as a dwelling place for everyday family living. The ensuing fire severely damaged the home. Jones was convicted in the District Court of violating, inter alia, 18 U. S. C. 844(i), which makes it a federal crime to "maliciously damag[e] or destro[y], . . . by means of fire or an explosive, any building . . . used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce." The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Jones's contention that 844(i), when applied to the arson of a private residence, exceeds the authority vested in Congress under the Commerce Clause.

Held: Because 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 is not subject to federal prosecution under 844(i). Pp. 852-859.

(a) In support of its argument that 844(i) reaches the arson of an owner-occupied private residence, the Government relies principally on the breadth of the statutory term "affecting . . . commerce," words that, when unqualified, signal Congress' intent to invoke its full Commerce Clause authority. But 844(i) contains the qualifying words "used in" a commerce-affecting activity. The key word is "used." Congress did not define the crime as the explosion of a building whose damage or destruction might affect interstate commerce, but required that the damaged or destroyed property itself have been used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce. The proper inquiry, therefore, is into the function of the building itself, and then into whether that function affects interstate commerce. The Court rejects the Government's argument that the Indiana residence involved in this case was constantly "used" in at least three "activit[ies] affecting commerce": (1) it was "used" as collateral to obtain and secure a mortgage from an Oklahoma lender, who, in turn, "used" it as security for the loan; (2) it was "used" to obtain from a Wisconsin insurer a casualty insurance policy, which safeguarded the interests of the homeowner and the mortgagee; and (3) it was "used" to receive natural gas from sources outside Indiana. Section 844(i)'s use-in-commerce requirement is most sensibly read to mean active employment for commercial purposes, and not merely a passive,

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