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United States v. Johnson

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

February 22, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CORNELIUS JOHNSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S CONVICTION FOR SIMPLE ASSAULT)

          Henry E. Hudson United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on appeal from the magistrate judge. Defendant Cornelius Johnson ("Defendant") was charged in a single-count Criminal Information alleging that he committed a simple assault within the special territorial jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(5).[1] On August 3, 2017, Defendant was convicted of the charged offense after a one-day bench trial and remanded to custody. On October 17, 2017, Defendant was released from custody after being sentenced to time served and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Defendant filed Notice of Appeal on October 25, 2017, and subsequently all parties filed memoranda supporting their respective positions.

         Defendant's appeal challenged the sufficiency of the evidence with regard to both the substantive elements of simple assault and the jurisdictional element-that the assault occurred within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

         After a hearing in open court on January 31, 2018, this Court affirmed Defendant's conviction for simple assault. This Court announced its reasoning as to the sufficiency of the evidence to convict Defendant for simple assault from the bench, while reserving its reasoning with regard to the jurisdictional issue for a more thorough articulation in a published opinion.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has jurisdiction over the underlying crime in this case.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of an appeal to this Court from the magistrate court is the same as an appeal to the Court of Appeals from a judgment entered by the district court. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 58(g)(2)(D). Accordingly, when a defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, the district court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. United States v. Bursey, 416 F.3d 301, 306 (4th Cir. 2005). The magistrate judge's conclusions of law are reviewed de novo, and his findings of fact are reviewed for clear error. United States v. Smith, 395 F.3d 516, 519 (4th Cir. 2005).

         II. ANALYSIS

         The record adduced at trial clearly shows that the assault occurred at McGuire VA Medical Center ("MVMC"), which is a federal facility located within the Eastern District of Virginia. Defendant does not contest the fact that the assault occurred at this location, but instead challenges the sufficiency of the evidence produced at trial to support this Court's territorial jurisdiction over MVMC. The Government counters that federal jurisdiction over MVMC is commonly known and that the Court can properly take judicial notice of such jurisdiction on appeal.

         A. Review of the Jurisdictional Element on Appeal

         "It is well established that a court may determine, as a matter of law, 'the existence of federal jurisdiction over the geographic area, but the locus of the offense within that area is an issue for the trier of fact."' United States v. Bridges, No. 94-5130, 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 34616, at *3 (4th Cir. Dec. 9, 1994) (unpublished opinion) (quoting United States v. Warren, 984 F.2d 325, 327 (9th Cir. 1993)); see United States v. Davis, 726 F.3d 357, 368 (2d Cir. 2013); Bryant v. Taylor, 797 F.Supp. 456, 461 n. 3 (D. Md. 1992) (collecting cases); see also United States v. Beyle, 782 F.3d 159, 166 (4th Cir. 2015) (holding that whether a specific physical location constitutes "on the high seas, " and therefore within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, is a question of law). Defendant, however, contends that the Supreme Court's recent decision in Torres v. Lynch, 136 S.Ct. 1619 (2016), mandates that the entire jurisdictional element be decided by the trier of fact and subject to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court disagrees.

         In Torres, the Supreme Court determined that a state offense qualified as an "aggravated felony" within the meaning of § 1101(a)(43) of the Immigration and Nationality Act because it included all the elements of the federal statute except the interstate commerce element. Id. While differentiating between substantive and jurisdictional elements of an offense, the Court noted the similarity that "[b]oth kinds of elements must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt; and because that is so, both play a real role in a criminal case."[2] Id. at 1630. Defendant seizes on this single sentence and concludes that it requires that both the physical location where a crime occurred as well as the court's jurisdiction over that location be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

         Even with the most favorable of constructions, Torres cannot be read to uproot the deeply entrenched distinction between law and fact, [3] and a search of its progeny yields no cases that apply Torres in this fashion. Defendant's position would require this Court to disregard Fourth Circuit precedent, as well as persuasive authority from sister circuits, and require the trier of fact to determine the validity of the United States' title in every case involving federal maritime and territorial jurisdiction. Entrusting such a nuanced and cumbersome legal exercise to the trier of fact would leave open the distinct possibility of conflicting decisions as to federal jurisdiction over an identical parcel of property-a status which by its nature either exists or doesn't exist. The Court is unwilling to adopt such an unorthodox view of the law based upon a narrow construction of a single sentence that is not central to the holding of an otherwise unrelated Supreme Court decision.

         The magistrate judge's decision was not deficient with regard to the jurisdictional element. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23(c) provides for "specific findings of fact" upon request but contains no similar requirement as to conclusions of law. Cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1) (explaining the treatment required of both findings of fact and conclusions of law in a civil bench trial). The testimony credited by the magistrate judge clearly established the physical location of the assault-a fact which the Defendant does not contest. The determination of whether this specific location falls within federal jurisdiction is a question of law. The magistrate judge found that Defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of simple assault in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 113(a)(5), and an element of that crime is that the assault occurred within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Therefore, the ...


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