King v. United States and the Overfederalization of Criminal Law

Near the end of the recent Supreme Court term, as the justices announced several headline-grabbing opinions (including, of course, NFIB v. Sebelius), one decision unfortunately slipped below the public radar – a denial of certiorari in King v. United States, a case of great significance for those concerned about the needless overfederalization of criminal law.

King, an Idaho rancher, injected uncontaminated water into an underground well on his own land.  Injecting clean water into a well is illegal because it has the potential to disrupt elements below the surface and possibly contaminate other aquifers. King then lied about his actions to state investigators in Idaho.

At the risk of sounding jejune, King shouldn’t have lied. His lie, however, should have remained a state offense, punishable under state law.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t see it that way. The court panel (composed of two Clinton appointees and one Johnson appointee) wrote that “King lied to Klimes, one of the [Idaho] investigators, in order to defeat the investigation. A willful injection of fluid into a deep well without a permit from the State of Idaho is a federal crime under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Therefore, King made a false statement in a ‘matter within the jurisdiction’ of the United States.” The Court’s argument, in other words, was the essence of the overfederalization: ‘You violated a state law and you lied about it to a state official. That’s a federal offense.’

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Cato Institute, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation filed this amicus brief urging the court (unsuccessfully) to grant cert to clarify that an individual should not face federal criminal liability under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (which criminalizes false statements) for a false statement that is “made to a person unconnected to the federal government at a time when no federal investigation exists merely because the statement concerns an issue over which the federal government may exercise discretionary regulatory authority.”

The brief noted that in every Section 1001 case before the year 1984, prosecution always involved a false statement made directly to a federal official, but since then the law has been frequently extended to apply to cases like King’s in which the false statement was made to a state or local official. (It’s hard to avoid the wry observation that 1984 is the year when the federal government started to overreach in this area…)

Unfortunately, due to the Supreme Court’s denial of cert, the next term will not be the one that tackles the increasing federal abuse of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Concerned stakeholders will need to wait—and hope—for another opportunity.

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