United States v. Ressam
474 F.3d 597 (2007)

  • Ressam was affiliated with al-Qa'ida. He crossed the border from Canada and gave a US Customs Official a false name. He was arrested.
    • He also happened to be driving a carload of explosives (with the intent to blow up an airport in Los Angeles).
  • Ressam was convicted of lying to a Customs Officer, which is a felony. He was sentenced to 22 years in jail on 9 counts. He appealed the sentence.
    • 18 U.S.C. 844(h)(2) says "whoever carries an explosive during the commission of any felony which may be prosecuted in a court of the United States shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such felony, be sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years."
    • Ressam argued that 844(h)(2) should be read to say that only felonies related to the bomb should count, and so the overall sentence was too long.
      • Otherwise you'd have an absurd result.
      • If you happened to be carrying a bomb while filing a false tax form, would that be worth an extra ten years?
  • The Appellate Court vacated the sentence and remanded.
    • The Appellate Court looked to United States v. Stewart (770 F.2d 538 (1985)) and found that 844(h)(2) requires a relationship between the underlying crime and the act of carrying an explosive.
      • In Stewart, Stewart was carrying a firearm (as opposed to a bomb), but the firearm Statute (18 U.S.C. 924(c)) has almost identical wording to 844(h)(2).
      • In Stewart, the court found that the legislative purpose necessarily implies some relation or connection between the underlying criminal act and the use or possession of the firearm.
      • 924(c) was later amended by Congress to explicitly add the words "in relation to," but Congress never changed the wording for 844(h)(2).
        • The Court found that the legislative history indicated that the new "in relation to" language in 924(c) was not intended to create an element of the crime that did not previously exist, but rather was intended to make explicit what had been implicit before.
        • So basically, Congress changed 924(c) to just explicitly say what was already implicitly there. Ergo, 844(h)(2) should be read to implicitly require a relationship as well.
  • In a dissent it was argued that Ressam met the plain language of 844(h)(2). He was carrying an explosive while committing a felony. In order for the Court to find Ressam innocent they would have to add an element to 844(h)(2) that does not appear in the statute enacted by Congress.
    • "We lack the constitutional authority to add an element to a criminal statute. That is Congress' function. Our role is merely to interpret what Congress has enacted."
  • Btw, this case was scheduled to be heard by the US Supreme Court, after the semester ended, so this is not a final decision.