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United States v. Harris.

No. 20-8032. D.Wyo. Judge Tymkovich. Assimilative Crimes Act—National Parks—Federal Assault Statute.

August 23, 2021


During a heated argument at a campsite in Yellowstone National Park, defendant pointed a gun and threatened to kill another camper. A grand jury charged defendant with threatening to use a drawn weapon on another, in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-502(a)(iii), assimilated through the Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA), 18 USC §§ 7(3) and 13. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the grand jury improperly assimilated the Wyoming offense. The district court denied the motion, and defendant was later convicted as charged.

Defendant argued on appeal that the federal assault statute precluded assimilation of the Wyoming statute through the ACA. Before the 1820s, federal enclaves—areas where states ceded jurisdiction over land within their borders to Congress, such as national parks and military bases— were essentially lawless jurisdictions. Congress enacted the ACA to solve this problem by making certain state criminal laws applicable on federal enclaves The ACA fills gaps in federal law by borrowing from state law to bolster the federal criminal law that applies on enclaves. It applies only if the act or omission in question is not made punishable by a Congressional enactment. To determine when the ACA applies, a court must (1) ask if the defendant’s act or omission was made punishable by an enactment of Congress, and if so, (2) ask whether the applicable federal statutes preclude application of the state law because application would interfere with federal policy or effectively rewrite an offense definition that Congress carefully considered, or because federal statutes occupy the field. Here, there was no dispute that defendant’s actions constituted simple assault under the federal statute. As to the second question, the federal statute identifies eight different assaultive acts with corresponding punishments and includes detailed definitions. Assimilating the Wyoming law to punish the conduct covered by the federal statute would substantially disrupt Congress’s careful assault definitions. Further, the detailed and comprehensive nature of the federal statute suggests that Congress intended to occupy the field so as to exclude use of the particular state statute. Here, the federal assault statute thoroughly covers defendant’s conduct, so he should have been charged under that statute. Further, the differences between the statutes amounted only to those of name, definitional language, and punishment, which are insufficient to support assimilation of the state statute.

Lastly, the government argued that the difference in scienter requirements dictated that the Wyoming statute could be assimilated. However, the federal statute’s inclusion of a broad range of scienter requirements demonstrates that Congress intended the statute to occupy the field of assault on federal enclaves. Further, the fact that the Wyoming provision was a felony and the federal provision was a misdemeanor did not create a gap because a difference in punishment does not require assimilation.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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