Putting a toxic chemical on a neighbor's mailbox is not the same as deploying a "chemical weapon," the Supreme Court said Monday, throwing out a federal prosecution over what Chief Justice John Roberts called a "two-bit local assault."
The justices decided to end the "curious case" of a jealous Pennsylvania woman who secretly inflicted a "minor chemical burn" on her husband's lover and instead found herself convicted of violating the Chemical Weapons Treaty.
It was the second time the high court ruled for Carol Bond.
The case began in 2006 when Bond learned that one of her best friends was pregnant and that her husband was the child's father.
A microbiologist, Bond obtained two toxic chemicals and spread them on the other woman's car door, mailbox and door knob. The victim suffered a "minor chemical burn on her thumb" and called police after Bond was caught on surveillance cameras.
But in a surprising twist, prosecutors decided "literally to make a federal case out of it," Roberts said. They charged her with two counts of using a chemical weapon. This was a federal crime under the terms of the 1998 law that implements the international treaty.
Bond was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. She appealed on the grounds that using the federal law to prosecute a state crime violated the 10th Amendment, the provision that says some matters are "reserved to the states."
She lost when a judge and the 3th Circuit Court in Philadelphia ruled that because she was an individual, not a state, she had no right to make such a claim. The Supreme Court disagreed in 2011.
But she lost again in the lower courts which upheld her conviction.
In Monday's opinion in Bond v. United States, the chief justice faulted the prosecutors and judges for ignoring common sense and misreading the federal law.
"An educated user of English would not describe Bond's crime as involving a 'chemical weapon,' " Roberts said. Moreover, such a broad interpretation of the law would turn ordinary kitchen cleaning products into chemical weapons.
"Bond's crime could hardly be more unlike the uses of mustard gas on the Western Front or nerve agents in the Iran-Iraq war that form the core concerns of that treaty," he said. "The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard or treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon."
All nine justices agreed on the outcome, but three would have gone further.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. would have ruled that it was unconstitutional to enforce a federal treaty in a way that tramples on a state's authority.