The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the far-reaching arm of federal criminal law and one unsuspecting person is all too familiar with its reach. Hessam Ghane, a 62-year-old chemist from Missouri, found himself facing a federal criminal conviction after threatening to take his own life using cyanide. He is now serving an 8-year federal prison sentence and several people are wondering why the federal government is involved in the first place. Ghane was admitted to a mental institution after experiencing delusions. He threatened to harm himself and several other unnamed government officials with the cyanide he kept in his home. At the hospital he gave police permission to search his home and that is where they discovered the cyanide. He was tried once and there was a hung jury. He was convicted the second time, in 2010.
Ghane’s use of cyanide violated an old federal law that is part of a chemical-weapons treaty. The law makes it a crime to possess toxic chemicals, including cyanide. Included within the law are some common household cleaners if they are used for a destructive purpose. Cleaning the kitchen or bathroom with ammonia would not be illegal, but pouring the ammonia into the goldfish tank would violate the federal law.
Ghane challenged his conviction and a federal appeals court in St. Louis upheld the conviction, even though it thought the rationale behind the use of the law in this case may have been flawed. This is just one of the many instances of federal criminal law reaching deep into the states. Some critics of the ever-increasing power of federal law believe that Congress’ constant passage of new criminal laws is making it difficult for the average citizen to know when he or she has run afoul of the law. Ghane’s attorney indicated that they would not stop at the court of appeals, but that they would appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Hessam Ghane’s challenge to the federal law that served as the basis for conviction is not the only challenge to the law. Carol Bond, a Pennsylvania woman, was also convicted under the law for spreading a toxic chemical on the mailbox, car door, and front door of a woman who had an affair with her husband. The victim suffered a chemical burn on her thumb. Bonds’ attorneys argue that her crime is a state offense and that prosecuting her under the federal law violates the 10th Amendment.
The federal government’s criminalization of the possession of toxic chemicals such as cyanide is allowed under Congress’s broad power to regulate interstate commerce and those things that can have an effect on interstate commerce. The Justice Department’s interpretation of the statute reveals that Congress made its intention very clear. Ghane’s case, and the others challenging the law, should put Missouri defense attorneys on notice that they may have to face increased federal encroachment into the state criminal law arena. If you’ve had a run in with police and find yourself in need of a Missouri criminal defense lawyer capable of fighting for your freedom, don’t hesitate to contact our St. Louis criminal law firm today at (314) 863-0500.
Source: “Terror Law’s Long Reach Challenged,” by John R. Emshwiller and Gary Fields, published at WSJ.com.