United States v. Lawson, No. 10-4831

Decided:  April 20, 2012

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Defendants raised the following challenges to their convictions:

  1. The convictions for violating the animal fighting statute should be vacated because Congress lacks power under the Commerce Clause to prohibit the fighting of gamefowl;
  2. The animal fighting statute is unconstitutional because the statute provides for different elements of proof in jurisdictions where animal fighting is legal;
  3. The district court abused its discretion in consolidating Scott Lawson’s trial with the trials of his co-defendants;
  4. A juror’s misconduct in performing unauthorized research of the definition of an element of the offense on Wikipedia.org (Wikipedia), an “open access” internet encyclopedia, deprived the defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial; and
  5. The defendants convicted for violating the illegal gambling statute raise several challenges to those convictions.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed in partvacated in part, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.  Specifically, the Court held that:

  1. The animal fighting statute is a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause;
  2. The district court did not err in holding joint trials for the defendants;
  3. The government failed to demonstrate that a juror’s misconduct did not affect the verdict with respect to the violations of the animal fighting statute.

Based on these holdings, the Court vacated all of the defendants’ convictions for violating the animal fighting statute and vacated the conspiracy convictions with respect to the defendants who were charged with conspiracy solely based on the animal fighting activities.  Additionally, the Court rejected the challenges made by several of the defendants to the illegal gambling convictions and affirmed the convictions relating to those offenses, as well as the conspiracy convictions for which illegal gambling was one of the objects of the conspiracy alleged.

This case is based on two indictments that stemmed from an undercover investigation of a cockfighting organization based in Swansea, S.C.  The investigation revealed evidence that defendants were involved in two cockfighting derbies.  In November 2009, a federal grand jury returned two separate indictments, the “Lawson” and “Dyal” indictments.  The District Court consolidated the indictments and conducted a single trial.  The jury returned a verdict finding all defendants guilty on all counts.

Several days after the verdict, the District Court was informed that one of the jurors had conducted unauthorized research on the internet during an overnight recess in the jury deliberations.  The District Court ordered a hearing, in which it determined that a juror used Wikipedia to research the definition of “sponsor,” one of the elements of the offense under the animal fighting statute.  The District Court then entered a written order, finding that the juror had committed misconduct, but that the defendants were not prejudiced by the juror’s actions.  The court denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial, and the defendants were sentenced to punishments of varying degrees.

The Fourth Circuit analyzed each of the above challenges to the District Court’s decisions.  First, the Court considered Defendants’ argument that their convictions for violating the animal fighting statute should be vacated because Congress lacks power under the Commerce Clause to prohibit the fighting of gamefowl.  The Court relied on a “companion case” for which it issued an opinion concurrently with its opinion in the present case, United States v. Gilbert, No. 10-4848 (4th Cir. Apr. 20, 2012).  In Gilbert, the Court held “that the activity of animal fighting substantially affects interstate commerce, and thus, is a subject that Congress has the power to regulate under the Commerce Clause.”  Therefore, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that 7 U.S.C. § 2156 is an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.

Second, the Court addressed Defendants’ argument that the animal fighting statute is unconstitutional because the statute provides for different elements of proof in different jurisdictions.  Lawson contended that the state-by-state variations in the elements of the animal fighting statute constituted a violation of his equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  The Court found that the animal fighting statute “relates to animal fighting, which is not a fundamental right,” and that the statute “classifies people on the basis of the location where they conduct their animal fighting activities, which is not a suspect classification.”  The Court additionally found that the challenged classification, i.e., the disparate treatment under the statute, rationally related to the legitimate governmental interest in accommodating the principles of federalism and concluded that Lawson’s equal protection challenge failed.

Third, the Court considered one defendant’s claim that the District Court erred in refusing to grant him a separate trial under Rule 14 of the Fed. R. Crim. Proc.  Relying on Rules 13 and 8(b), the Court found the District Court’s decision to join the cases to be appropriate because the indictments against Defendants alleged that they were all involved in the same acts and transactions with respect to the same animal fighting venture and conspiracy.  The Court reviewed the District Court’s decision to deny the motion for a separate trial for “clear abuse of discretion,” and held that because the defendant could not show that he was deprived or a fair trial nor that a miscarriage of justice occurred, the District Court did not abuse its discretion.

Fourth, the Court considered Defendants’ argument that they were entitled to a new trial based on the juror misconduct.  On this matter, the District Court had applied the five-factor test announced by the Tenth Circuit in Mayhue v. St. Francis Hospital of Wichita, Inc., 969 F.2d 919 (10th Cir. 1992), to determine whether the juror’s misconduct at issue prejudiced Defendants.  Notably, in denying Defendants’ motion for a new trial, the District Court did not address Defendants’ argument that they were entitled to a presumption of prejudice.

The Fourth Circuit considered Defendants’ argument that the juror’s unauthorized use of Wikipedia entitled them to a rebuttable presumption of prejudice under United States v. Remmer, 347 U.S. 227 (1954).  In Remmer, the Supreme Court held that a rebuttable presumption of prejudice arose from a third party’s unauthorized communication with a juror during the trial.  The Court first determined that “the Remmer rebuttable presumption remains live and well in the Fourth Circuit,” and then concluded that the presumption applies “when a juror uses a dictionary or similar resource to research the definition of a material word or term at issue in a pending case.”  The Court applied the Mayhue factors to determine whether the government had rebutted the presumption of prejudice and concluded that the government had failed to satisfy its “‘heavy obligation’ to rebut the presumption of prejudice by showing that ‘there is no reasonable possibility that the verdict was affected by the’ external influence” at issue.  Ultimately, because the Court was unable to say that the juror’s use of Wikipedia did not violate the fundamental protections afforded by the Sixth Amendment, it vacated Defendants’ convictions under the animal fighting statute and awarded them a new trial with respect to the related charges.

Fifth, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that because 18 U.S.C. § 1955 has a mens rea requirement, if defendants concluded in good faith that their conduct was not gambling, then they could not be convicted under this statute.  The Court held that this statute is a general intent crime “which does not require the government to establish that the defendants knew that their conduct violated state law.”  Additionally, the Court cited a 2003 opinion letter issued by the S.C. Attorney General in order to define the elements of S.C. Code § 16-19-130, the S.C. gambling statute.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite

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