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Breaking Legal Developments


Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Fourth Circuit Finds Use of Cars Sufficient to Meet Interstate Commerce Requirements Under Arson Statute


In United States v. Rowe, No. 00-4458; United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (July 5, 2001), the defendant challenged his federal arson conviction claiming insufficient contacts with interstate commerce. Rowe was a frequent guest at the home of Brian Ross, who lived in the same townhouse complex as Alonzo and Shirley Webb. Because of parking regulations at this complex, Rowe's vehicle was often towed when he parked near Ross' townhouse. Rowe blamed the Webbs for calling the towing company and occasionally expressed a desire to "get retribution."

Other evidence suggested that Rowe was hostile to the Webbs because of their race. Rowe is white; the Webbs are black. Several witnesses testified that Rowe regularly made racist remarks, including in his references to the Webbs.

On the evening of October 30, 1998, Rowe and several other people congregated at Ross' house. Rowe and another guest, Charles Jewell, stayed overnight; the others departed some time after midnight. At that point, Ross was so intoxicated that he had passed out.

Jewell went to sleep after the other guests left, while Rowe stayed up and collected the trash strewn around Ross' house.

Between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning on October 31, a resident of the townhouse complex observed Ross' automobile being moved out of the space next to Shirley Webb's vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Shirley Webb's vehicle was destroyed by fire. After the fire, Alonzo Webb found an unexploded Molotov cocktail near his automobile, which was parked next to his wife's vehicle. This device consisted of a Budweiser beer bottle filled with flammable liquid, with a paper towel in the mouth. Investigators discovered the remnants of a second Molotov cocktail, this one made from a Coors Light bottle, under Shirley Webb's vehicle. In Ross' house, investigators found a Budweiser bottle, several Coors Light bottles, and a roll of paper towels with the same print as those found in the two Molotov cocktails.

When confronted by Ross and Jewell, Rowe denied setting the fire, but he was "smiling and smirking" as he said this. Id. at 124. Later, he made inculpatory statements to Ross. First, he told Ross, "If you don't say anything, I won't get in trouble. Don't say anything." Id. at 215 (internal quotation marks omitted). He then expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the arson: "That wasn't good enough. I should have blown up the damn . . . house." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The jury found Rowe guilty of arson and attempted arson of vehicles. See 18 U.S.C.A. S 844(i).

Rowe contends that the Webbs' vehicles were not used in interstate commerce; thus, he asserted, the district court lacked jurisdiction over these offenses. In the district court, Rowe stipulated that the Webbs' vehicles "were used in interstate commerce and in an activity affecting interstate commerce within the meaning of those terms in Title 18, United States Code, Section 844(i)."

The evidence described above amply demonstrates Rowe's guilt. Rowe does not directly dispute this, but instead contends that the testimony most damaging to him, that of Brian Ross, should not be accepted because it was contradicted by Rowe's testimony. It is not our place to resolve such conflicts in the evidence, however. See United States v. Russell, 221 F.3d 615, 618 n.1 (4th Cir. 2000). His convictions were affirmed.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), (e-mail), Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

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