case law update

Ninth Circuit: Sexual Assaults by Federal Detainees are Federal Crimes Even If Occurring in a Non-Federal Facility

On March 5, 2009, Mr. Sabil Mumin Mujahid was arrested in Anchorage, Alaska, on Federal firearms charges, specifically for being a felon in possession of a firearm.  A firearm was discovered in his vehicle when he appeared at a local courthouse for a bail hearing on a state drug charge.

The United States District Court for the District of Alaska ordered Mr. Mujahid detained and the state court revoked his bail.  Mr. Mujahid was detained at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, which housed inmates detained for state crimes, as well as those in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. 

While in the Anchorage Correctional Complex, Mr. Mujahid raped multiple inmates.  For these acts, Mr. Mujahid was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 2241, 2242, and 2244.  18 U.S.C. § 2241 defines and proscribes aggravated sexual abuse by any person “in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the head of any Federal department or agency.”  

Mr. Mujahid was tried in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska for the multiple sexual assaults of other inmates.  Mr. Mujahid moved to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the Federal government lacked constitutional authority to govern violence in state facilities like the Anchorage Correctional Complex.  The district court rejected his argument and the trial proceeded.  Mr. Mujahid was convicted on seven counts and sentenced to an additional forty years imprisonment, on top of his custodial sentence imposed in June 2009, for being a previously convicted felon in possession of a firearm. 

Mr. Mujahid appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, again challenging Congress’ constitutional authority to govern violence in state facilities, especially, Mr. Mujahid claimed, because he was in state custody and not federal custody at the times of at least some of the sexual assaults.  The Court of Appeals noted that Mr. Mujahid had not alleged at trial that he was in state custody as opposed to federal custody, and refused to evaluate that fact for the first time on appeal, since it had previously been uncontested that he was a Federal detainee.  However, the Court of Appeals did examine more broadly whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by banning sexual assaults by federal inmates in state detention facilities. 

The Court of Appeals determined that Congress acted within its constitutional authority.  “First, . . . the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress broad power to enact . . . criminal laws . . . in furtherance of Congress’ enumerated powers. . . .  Second, Congress has long been involved in legislating the terms of federal imprisonment. . .  Third, the statutes here . . . are reasonably adapted to Congress’ power to act as a responsible federal custodian. . . .  Fourth, although the statutes at issue do not expressly accommodate state interests, the government correctly observes that they do not supplant State legislation addressing the same topic; rather, like many federal criminal statutes, they create concurrent and complementary jurisdiction.  Finally, the links between the statutes and an enumerated Article I power are not too attenuated.”

Thus, Congress acted lawfully in criminalizing a sexual assault by (or of) a Federal detainee, even if that detainee is detained in a non-Federal facility, and Mr. Mujahid’s conviction was affirmed. 

However, the Court of Appeals explicitly declined to decide whether the law would exceed Congress’ constitutional authority if applied to a sexual assault involving two state detainees (or staff or visitors) in a state run facility where federal detainees happen to be housed but were not involved in the crime, leaving some questions about the full extent of the law unanswered. 

Review the full opinion: Court of Appeals in United States v. Mujahid


This case law update was written by Michael S. Causey, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, michael s causey


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