U.S. v. WHITE, NO. 13-4949

Decided: November 17, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Michael White’s (“White”) conviction for arson-related charges, and affirmed his enhanced sentence for commission of arson to a “dwelling.”

White was something of an entrepreneur in West Virginia. Among other ventures, in 1998, he began renting a duplex apartment building. Unfortunately, by 2009, White’s financial situation had deteriorated. One of his ventures had failed, and White’s tenants at the duplex were not paying their rent. Prior to the arson, White obtained an eviction order against one tenant, but apparently the other was never notified and never removed her personal belongings from the apartment. In June 2009, White took out a fire insurance policy on the duplex, and later that summer he paid the Kinders, who lived across the street from the duplex, to burn it down, so that he could collect the insurance proceeds. In the aftermath of the arson, White reneged on his promise to pay the Kinders but he also made comments to an insurance agent that tended to exonerate them of liability. However, the Kinders ultimately implicated White in their testimony to the police, and White was eventually tried and convicted for conspiracy to commit arson, aiding and abetting arson, and accessory after the fact to arson.

The Court first reasoned that the Government had established White was involved in an “activity that [sufficiently] affect[ed]” interstate commerce, as required for the first two convictions. Although White conceded that renting real estate is an “activity” that sufficiently affects interstate commerce, he argued that the duplex was no longer being rented because his tenants had vacated it when the arson took place. However, according to the Court, there was enough evidence to show that the duplex was still being rented at the time of the arson. First, it remained insured as a commercial property. Second, White’s act of commissioning the arson indicated that he did not intend to “remove” the duplex from the rental market, but rather, he intended to collect on the insurance policy.

Next, the Court affirmed White’s conviction for accessory after the fact to arson because, even though he made untruthful statements to an insurance agent instead of a police officer, a reasonable juror could infer that White knew the insurance agent would relay his comments to law enforcement. Further, White’s only purpose for lying to the insurance agent was to shift police attention away from himself and the Kinders.

Finally, the Court affirmed White’s enhanced sentence for committing arson to a “dwelling,” even if the duplex was vacant at the time of the arson. According to the Court, a “brief [vacancy] period” did not warrant a status change from dwelling to “mere building.” Therefore, the Court affirmed White’s convictions.

Full Opinion

James Bull Sterling

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