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United States of America v. Gary Rogers

May 21, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
GARY ROGERS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VIKTOR V. Pohorelsky United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

The defendant has moved to dismiss the two criminal offenses with which he has been charged on the ground that they are outside the scope of state law offenses that may be charged under the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13. The essence of the defendant's argument rests on the proposition that the government may not charge an offense of state criminal law, through the Assimilative Crimes Act, if a federal statute provides criminal penalties for the conduct underlying the charges brought against the defendant.

The two criminal charges brought pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act that the defendant faces here are attempted petit larceny, in violation of sections 110 and 155.25 of New York Penal Law, and the attempted possession of stolen property in the fifth degree, in violation of sections 110 and 165.40 of that Law. The defendant identifies three federal statutes that he contends cover the conduct underlying the charges here and that therefore preclude the government from charging violations of the New York Penal Law under the Assimilative Crimes Act.

The basic purpose of the Assimilative Crimes Act is to borrow state law to fill gaps in the federal law applicable on federal enclaves. Lewis v. United States, 523 U.S. 155, 160 (1998)(citing Williams v. United States, 327 U.S. 711, 718-19 (1946)). The parties agree that the Supreme Court's opinion in Lewis provides the two-step test for determining the question whether there is a gap that requires filling. The first step requires the court to ask whether the defendant's act or omission is made punishable by any act of Congress. Id., 523 U.S. at 164. If the answer is "no," then the Assimilative Crimes Act may be used to import any applicable state law. If the answer is "yes," the court moves to the second step which requires the court to determine whether the applicable federal statutes preclude application of the state law for any one of three reasons: "because its application would interfere with the achievement of a federal policy, . . . because the state law would effectively rewrite an offense definition that Congress carefully considered, . . . or because federal statutes reveal an intent to occupy so much of a field as would exclude use of the particular state statute at issue." Id. (citations omitted).

A preliminary question that must be addressed before conducting the first step of the Lewis analysis is precisely what conduct is to be considered when determining whether the defendant's "act or omission" is made punishable by any act of Congress. Does the court look to the charging language in the accusatory instrument, or does the court look to the proof that the government is expected to offer as evidence of the defendant's guilt of the charge in the accusatory instrument?*fn1 This court concludes it must be the former. The government has always retained the discretion to frame the charges that it wishes to bring, regardless of whether the conduct it will offer in support of those charges might also be proof of guilt of other charges not brought. If the court is required to examine the proof the government is expected to offer as evidence of the defendant's guilt to determine whether some federal charge could be brought based on that evidence, the court would be substituting its judgment for that of the prosecutor with respect to the charges to be brought against a defendant. That is beyond the proper role of the court. Rather the court should simply look at the crime charged to determine whether proof of the elements of that crime would necessarily be sufficient to also prove a violation of federal law. The court uses the word "necessarily" purposefully. As the discussion below will show, the coverage of the state statutes at issue here overlap with the coverage of the federal statutes identified by the defendant such that there are factual scenarios which would provide proof sufficient for convictions under both the state and the federal laws. But that does not establish that there are no gaps in the federal law that require filling by the state law. Rather, there are no gaps in the federal law only if every factual scenario that would provide proof of the state law violation would also provide proof of a federal violation. Or, to put it another way, there exists a gap for state law to fill if there are circumstances where a defendant could be found guilty of the state offense without also being guilty of some federal offense.

Upon examination of the specific charges here as stated in the accusatory instruments, there are significant gaps such that one could be found guilty of the state charges without also being guilty of the federal enactments identified by the defendant. Each of the two accusatory instruments charges an attempt, which New York law defines as follows:

A person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime when, with intent to commit a crime, he engages in conduct which tends to effect the commission of such crime.

N.Y. Penal Law § 110.00. Proof of an attempt thus does not require proof that a crime was actually committed. See People v. Naradzay, 11 N.Y.3d 460, 466 (2008) (a defendant must engage in conduct "dangerously near" commission of the completed crime, but not necessarily the "final step" necessary to commit the offense). Each of the three federal statutes cited by the defendant, on the other hand, require proof of a completed offense; none criminalize only attempts. That alone is sufficient to end the inquiry. As there is no federal enactment that is applicable to the defendant's act as charged in the accusatory instrument, the government may borrow state law under the Assimilative Crimes Act. See Lewis, 523 U.S. at 165.

Even putting aside the absence of any possible prosecution for attempts under the federal statutes, there are other gaps left by those statutes that the state laws here can fill. The statute defining the substantive offense that is the subject of the charge of attempted possession of stolen property in the fifth degree provides,

A person is guilty of criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree when he knowingly possesses stolen property, with intent to benefit himself or a person other than an owner thereof or to impede the recovery by an owner thereof.

N.Y. Penal Law § 165.40. To prove the crime, then, the government need only establish that the defendant knowingly possessed stolen property with the intent to deprive the owner of it.

Each of the federal statutes that the defendant cites in support of his argument requires something more than simple possession of stolen property, and thus proof of the state offense will not necessarily be sufficient to prove any of the federal offenses. Section 641 of title 18, United States Code, provides criminal penalties for anyone who "receives, conceals, or retains" "any record, voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States." 18 U.S.C. § 641. The government properly points out, however, that this statute applies only if the stolen property belongs to the government, an additional element that the state law does not require.

The two other sections of the United States Code cited by the defendant in support of his argument that federal statutes cover the offense charged here under the Assimilative Crimes Act each apply solely to conduct committed within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.*fn2 Section 661 provides criminal penalties for "[w]hoever, within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, takes and carries away, with intent to steal or purloin, any personal property of another." 18 U.S.C. § 661. A successful prosecution under the statute, by its specific terms, requires proof that the defendant engaged in the acts of taking and carrying away property while within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States; simply possessing stolen property there is not enough. Thus, a defendant who "takes" and "carries away" stolen property somewhere outside the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States could not be prosecuted for merely possessing that stolen property within the jurisdiction. Similarly, the crimes defined in section 662 do not cover simple possession of stolen property within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. 18 U.S.C. § 662. That statute applies to a defendant who "buys, receives, or conceals" stolen property within that area. It would not apply to a defendant who has bought, received or concealed stolen property outside the jurisdiction, and simply possessed the property within the jurisdiction. The court concludes, then, that the state law concerning possession of stolen property under which the prosecution is proceeding here permits the government to prosecute crimes that are not covered by any of the federal statutes cited by the defendant.

The court reaches the same conclusion with respect to the other charge against the defendant here, attempted petit larceny. The statute defining the substantive offense that is the subject of that charge provides, "A person is guilty of petit larceny when he steals property." N.Y. Penal Law ยง 155.25. New York ...


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