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King v. United States and the Overfederalization of Criminal Law

| July 20, 2012

Near the end of the recent Supreme Court term, as the justices announced several headline-grabbing opinions (including, of course, NFIB v. Sebelius), one decision unfortunately slipped below the public radar – a denial of certiorari in King v. United States, a case of great significance for those concerned about the needless overfederalization of criminal law.

King, an Idaho rancher, injected uncontaminated water into an underground well on his own land.  Injecting clean water into a well is illegal because it has the potential to disrupt elements below the surface and possibly contaminate other aquifers. King then lied about his actions to state investigators in Idaho.

At the risk of sounding jejune, King shouldn’t have lied. His lie, however, should have remained a state offense, punishable under state law.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t see it that way. The court panel (composed of two Clinton appointees and one Johnson appointee) wrote that “King lied to Klimes, one of the [Idaho] investigators, in order to defeat the investigation. A willful injection of fluid into a deep well without a permit from the State of Idaho is a federal crime under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Therefore, King made a false statement in a ‘matter within the jurisdiction’ of the United States.” The Court’s argument, in other words, was the essence of the overfederalization: ‘You violated a state law and you lied about it to a state official. That’s a federal offense.’

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Cato Institute, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation filed this amicus brief urging the court (unsuccessfully) to grant cert to clarify that an individual should not face federal criminal liability under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (which criminalizes false statements) for a false statement that is “made to a person unconnected to the federal government at a time when no federal investigation exists merely because the statement concerns an issue over which the federal government may exercise discretionary regulatory authority.”

The brief noted that in every Section 1001 case before the year 1984, prosecution always involved a false statement made directly to a federal official, but since then the law has been frequently extended to apply to cases like King’s in which the false statement was made to a state or local official. (It’s hard to avoid the wry observation that 1984 is the year when the federal government started to overreach in this area…)

Unfortunately, due to the Supreme Court’s denial of cert, the next term will not be the one that tackles the increasing federal abuse of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Concerned stakeholders will need to wait—and hope—for another opportunity.

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VIBRANT P. REDDY is Senior Fellow for criminal justice issues at the Charles Koch Institute. Previously, Reddy was the Senior Policy Analyst for both Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. He has authored several reports on criminal justice policy and is a frequent speaker and media commentator on the topic. Reddy has worked as a research assistant at The Cato Institute, as a law clerk to the Honorable Gina M. Benavides of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals of Texas, and as an attorney in private practice, focusing on trial and appellate litigation. Reddy graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Plan II Honors, Economics, and History, and he earned his law degree at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas and of the State Bar’s Appellate Section and Criminal Justice Section.

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