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United States v. Dejesus

United States District Court, S.D. New York

August 30, 2017



          VALERIE CAPRONI, United States District Judge.

         On May 23, 2017, officers of the Port Authority Police Department pulled over Stalin DeJesus (“DeJesus”) at the New Jersey entrance to the George Washington Bridge. With DeJesus's consent, the officers searched his vehicle and discovered a loaded 9 millimeter semiautomatic handgun hidden in a concealed compartment beneath the front passenger seat. Because DeJesus had been previously convicted of a felony, the United States charged him with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (it is “unlawful for any person-[convicted of a felony]; . . . [to] possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; . . . .”). DeJesus has moved to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that venue is improper in the Southern District of New York and to suppress the firearm on the grounds that the Port Authority officers did not have probable cause to stop his vehicle. Mem. (Dkt. 11). For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees that venue is improper in the Southern District. Accordingly, DeJesus's motion to dismiss is GRANTED. The Court does not reach DeJesus's alternative argument that the stop of his car was unconstitutional.


         Federal law requires defendants to be tried in the district in which their crime was “committed.” United States v. Ramirez, 420 F.3d 134, 138 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 18 and Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution). When a statute does not provide specifically for venue, the Supreme Court has instructed the courts to determine the “‘locus delicti' of the charged offense . . . from the nature of the crime alleged and the location of the act or acts constituting it.” United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. 275, 279 (1999) (quoting United States v. Cabrales, 524 U.S. 1, 6-7 (1998)) (additional citations omitted). In performing this inquiry, the court must “‘identify the conduct constituting the offense, ' and then ‘discern the location of the commission'” of those acts. Ramirez, 420 F.3d at 138 (quoting Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 279). The Second Circuit has emphasized that the focus is on the physical conduct - or “essential conduct elements” - criminalized by Congress.[1] Id. at 144 (noting that the Supreme Court used the phrase “conduct element” three times in the relevant paragraph of Rodriguez-Moreno). At this stage in the proceedings, the Government need only “allege with specificity that the charged acts support venue in this district, ” United States v. Long, 697 F.Supp. 651, 655 (S.D.N.Y. 1988), and the Court assumes as true the allegations in the indictment, United States v. Forrester, No. 02-CR-302 (WHP), 2002 WL 1610940, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 22, 2002).

         DeJesus contends that none of the essential conduct of his alleged crime took place in the Southern District of New York. It is undisputed that DeJesus was stopped by the Port Authority officers shortly after he passed through the toll booth to enter the George Washington Bridge. At the time of the stop, his vehicle was in New Jersey, having not yet gone far enough onto the bridge to be over the Hudson River. Compare Opp'n (Dkt. 19) at 6 & Ex. 1 at 3, and Mem. At 3. According to DeJesus, as to venue, those facts are dispositive because the only essential conduct element of Section 922(g) is the “possession” of a firearm or ammunition, conduct the parties agree did not occur in New York.[2] Mem. at 6.

         Accepting that DeJesus never “possessed” the firearm in New York, the Government argues that the prepositional phrase “in or affecting commerce” is a part of the essential conduct element of possession of a firearm.[3] Opp'n at 7. Assuming that to be the case, the Government argues that venue is proper in the Southern District of New York because DeJesus's conduct affected commerce in New York: he was about to use an instrumentality of interstate commerce to cross into New York and he has acknowledged that he intended to do so. Opp'n at 8.

         The Government analogizes this case to Rodriguez-Moreno. In Rodriguez-Moreno, the defendant was charged with violating Section 924(c), which criminalizes using or carrying a firearm “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, ” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). See 526 U.S. at 279. Reversing the Third Circuit, the Supreme Court held that venue was proper in any district in which the firearm was used or carried and in the district in which the underlying “crime of violence” was committed. Id. at 280 (explaining that the crime of violence is an essential conduct element despite the fact that it is “embedded in a prepositional phrase and not expressed in verbs”). The Supreme Court contrasted Rodriguez-Moreno's case with United States v. Cabrales, 524 U.S. 1 (1998), in which it considered the proper venue for money laundering charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1957. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 280 n.4. Section 1957 criminalizes “knowingly engag[ing] . . . in a monetary transaction in criminally derived property . . . [, ]” 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a). The Court in Cabrales held that venue was proper only in the district in which the monetary transactions occurred and was not proper in the district in which the “criminally derived property” was generated because the focus of Section 1957 is the “after the fact” offense of using illicit funds in a monetary transaction, rather than the “anterior criminal conduct” giving rise to those funds. Cabrales, 524 U.S. at 7; see also Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 280 n.4 (characterizing the “existence of criminally generated proceeds” as a “circumstance element” under Section 1957). The Second Circuit has interpreted Rodriguez-Moreno and Cabrales to distinguish between “essential element[s]” of the offense (which give rise to venue) and “circumstantial element[s]” of the offense (which do not). Saavedra, 223 F.3d at 92.

         In United States v. Davis, the Second Circuit applied this framework to the Hobbs Act, which, like Section 922(g), prohibits certain conduct that has a connection to interstate commerce. See 689 F.3d 179 (2d Cir. 2012); 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (prohibiting “in any way or degree obstruct[ing], delay[ing], or affect[ing] commerce . . ., by robbery . . . .”). Davis held that venue is proper in any district in which commerce was affected by the robbery because the Hobbs Act “criminalizes a particular type of ‘robbery'-i.e., one that ‘obstructs, delays, or affects commerce.'” 689 F.3d at 186 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 1951). Put differently, “affecting commerce” is an essential element of Hobbs Act robbery “because the terms of the statute itself forbid affecting commerce in particular ways.” United States v. Bowens, 224 F.3d 302, 313 (4th Cir. 2000); see also Davis, 689 F.3d at 186-87 (citing Bowens approvingly). “When Congress defines the essential conduct elements of a crime in terms of their particular effects, venue will be proper where those proscribed effects are felt.” Bowens, 224 F.3d at 313.

         Unlike the Hobbs Act, Section 922(g) does not criminalize possession of a firearm in terms of its effect on commerce. Since at least United States v. Scarborough, 431 U.S. 563 (1977), Section 922(g) has required only a de minimis connection to interstate commerce. See United States v. Palozie, 166 F.3d 502, 505 (2d Cir. 1999) (“[I]n order to satisfy the interstate commerce element of [Section] 922(g), the prosecution need only make the de minimis showing that the possessed firearm previously traveled in interstate commerce.”). The Second Circuit, relying on Scarborough, has explained that the statute does not require any temporal nexus between the defendant's act of possessing the firearm and the firearm's effect on commerce:

The defendant in Scarborough argued that this wording meant that the interstate commerce nexus had to be “‘contemporaneous' with the possession” of the firearm, and that Title VII therefore proscribed “‘only crimes with a present connection to commerce.'” . . . [T]he Court saw “no indication” that in passing Title VII, “Congress intended to require any more than the minimal nexus that the firearm have been, at some point in time, in interstate commerce.”

Id. at 503-04 (quoting Scarborough, 431 U.S. at 568, 575) (emphasis added). As applied to this case, DeJesus's alleged possession of a firearm violated Section 922(g) regardless of whether DeJesus's possession of the weapon had any effect on interstate commerce. Like the underlying criminal conduct in Cabrales, the effect on commerce under Section 922(g) may be entirely “anterior” to the conduct prohibited by Congress, Cabrales, 524 U.S. at 7; put differently, the required effect on commerce is a “circumstance element” of the offense. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 280 n.4.

         The relaxed connection to commerce required under Section 922(g) distinguishes Section 922(g) from the Hobbs Act. As the Second Circuit explained in Davis, the Hobbs Act does not criminalize mere robbery, it applies only to robberies that have an impact on interstate commerce. Davis, 689 F.3d at 186. This distinction runs through the case law concerning when venue is proper based on an “effect.” For example, the Second Circuit has held that venue is proper in a prosecution for false statements under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 in any district in which the false statement affects a government official because Section 1001 criminalizes only the making of false statements that are material and therefore have an effect on the Government official to whom they are made. See United States v. Coplan, 703 F.3d 46, 79 (2d Cir. 2012); see also United States v. Oceanpro Indus., Ltd., 674 F.3d 323, 329 (4th Cir. 2012) (same). That is simply not the case under Section 922(g), which criminalizes the defendant's act of possessing a firearm regardless of whether the possession itself has any impact on interstate commerce.[4]


         DeJesus's motion to dismiss the indictment for improper venue is GRANTED, and the indictment is DISMISSED. Because the indictment must be dismissed, the Court does not address ...

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