United States v. Gibert, No. 10-4848

Decided: April 20, 2012

Jeffrey Brian Gibert entered a conditional plea of guilty to the charge of conspiring to violate the animal fighting statute, reserving a right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute.  On appeal, Gibert argues that Congress exceeded its power under the Commerce Clause in enacting a criminal prohibition against animal fighting, because animal fighting is inherently an intrastate activity that has no substantial effect on interstate commerce and is thus reserved for regulation by the states.  He also argues that the scienter requirement of the statute requires the government to prove that he had knowledge that the animal fighting was in or affected interstate commerce.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed Gibert’s convictions, holding that the animal fighting statute is a legitimate exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause and that the statute does not require the government to prove the defendants’ knowledge of the particular venture’s nexus to interstate commerce.

A challenge to the constitutionality of a federal statute is viewed with a presumption of constitutionality in mind, requiring a plain showing that congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds.  The Fourth Circuit first discussed the history of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 as a comprehensive regulatory scheme that clearly involves interstate commerce.  Numerous statements made by members of the House Committee on Agriculture support the recent addition of the prohibition against animal fighting to the AWA, including a desire to prevent the spread of bird flu through cockfighting as well as to stop the “traveling circus” atmosphere that follows dog fighting.

Under Supreme Court precedent, if a rational basis exists for concluding that a regulated activity sufficiently affects interstate commerce, then a Commerce Clause challenge to regulation of the activity will fail.  The animal fighting statute implicates the third prong of Lopez and Morrison, “those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.”  The court examined the four factors identified in Lopez and Morrison, finding that the animal fighting statute relates to commerce or economic enterprise; the statute at issue has a nexus to interstate commerce as an element of the offense; there are ample congressional findings in the statute and its legislative history that support the judgment that animal fighting has a substantial effect on interstate commerce; and the link between animal fighting ventures and its effect on interstate commerce is not an attenuated one.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, concluding that the activity of animal fighting and Congress’ statutory prohibition of that activity bear the required nexus to interstate commerce that was found lacking in Lopez and Morrison and was a legitimate exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.

With regards to Gibert’s scienter argument, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that Gibert’s conviction for violating the animal fighting statute required proof of knowledge of the stated factual elements of the offense, but did not require proof of knowledge that the activity was in or affected interstate commerce.  The court further noted that criminal statutes based on the government’s interest in regulating interstate commerce do not generally require that an offender have knowledge of the interstate nexus of his actions unless Congress requires knowledge as an element of the offense within the statute.

Full Opinion

-Nora Bennani

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