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United States v. Bramble

 

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Ronald Bramble appealed a series of felony and misdemeanor convictions, including possession of eagle feathers and migratory birds. In its first chance to uphold a federal wildlife protection law since the Supreme Court limited Congress’s Commerce Clause authority in United States v. Lopez,[1] the Ninth Circuit upheld the Eagle Protection Act[2] as a valid exercise of Commerce Clause power. The court reasoned that Congress had a rational basis for the conclusion that extinction of the eagle would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, and therefore upheld the validity of the Eagle Protection Act. The court also upheld the Migratory Bird Treaty Act[3] under the Necessary and Proper Clause and treaty-making power of the Constitution.

Bramble offered to sell sea otter pelts to undercover federal agents. He also showed the agents parts of a bald eagle, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, and great horned owl. Bramble’s pelts turned out to be river otter pelts, which are legal to sell, but he was charged and convicted of a felony for possession of eagle feathers as well as a misdemeanor for possession of migratory birds. He also was convicted of felonies for illegal possession of firearms and possession and cultivation of marijuana.

Bramble was unsuccessful in the procedural challenges to his criminal convictions. The court found the police search of his home to be legal. Bramble contested the fact that when he directly asked the agents if they were police officers, they said they were not. However, a direct denial of the identity of an undercover agent is a permissible misrepresentation to obtain consent to entry. Bramble also challenged the warrantless entry of uniformed police officers who entered after the federal agents called for backup. The court held that consent extended to undercover agents who establish probable cause for a search also extends to backup officers summoned by the undercover agents. The court also held Bramble’s consent to a search of his home was voluntary, and found at his suppression hearing that Bramble was not deprived of rights.

Relying on Lopez, Bramble challenged the constitutionality of each statute under which he was convicted, arguing that they went beyond the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. The Ninth Circuit pointed to cases it had decided post-Lopez (under the Controlled Substances Act and the felon in possession of a firearm statute) to support the district court convictions.

The district court upheld the Migratory Bird Treaty Act under the Commerce Clause, in part due to a 1920 Supreme Court ruling, Missouri v. Holland.[4] The Ninth Circuit found that the district court misspoke when it stated that the Supreme Court upheld the Migratory Bird Treaty Act under the Commerce Clause. It pointed out that the Act was validated under the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Article II treaty-making power.[5] The Supreme Court found the treaty and the statute necessary to protect migratory birds from extinction. As a result, the Ninth Circuit found it unnecessary to consider whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was a valid exercise of the Commerce Clause.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the Eagle Protection Act was a valid exercise of the Commerce Clause power of the Constitution. Noting that the Supreme Court as well as the Ninth Circuit have upheld the Act under the Commerce Clause prior to the Lopez ruling, the court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Act.

In Lopez, the Supreme Court held that Congress did not have the authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate firearms near schools. The Court defined broad classes of activities that Congress has the authority to regulate under the Commerce Clause, including “activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.”[6] The Court found the proper test for this class to be whether the activity “substantially affects” interstate commerce.[7]

Bramble argued that the Act has nothing to do with any economic enterprise that substantially affects commerce. The court disagreed, holding that extinction of the eagle would substantially affect interstate commerce by making several types of commercial activities impossible. These activities include future commerce in eagles or their parts, interstate travel for viewing or studying eagles, and commerce in products derived from eagles or from study of their genetic material. The court pointed out that the only two courts to confront post-Lopez challenges to federal wildlife protection laws reached the same conclusion.[8]

Expanding on its examples of affected future commerce, the court indicated that protection of an endangered species may lead to a significant enough regeneration of the species to allow for economic exploitation of that species in the future. It also pointed out that if the species goes extinct, its genetic pool is lost, taking unknown commercial possibilities with it. Therefore, the court concluded that Congress had a rational basis in determining that the extinction of the eagle would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.


[1]514 U.S. 549 (1995).

[2]Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 668-668d (1994).

[3]16 U.S.C. §§ 703-712 (1994).

[4]252 U.S. 416 (1920).

[5]Id. at 432.

[6]Lopez, 514 U.S. at 558-59.

[7]Id. at 559.

[8]United States v. Lundquist, 932 F. Supp. 1237 (D. Or. 1996); United States v. Romano, 929 F. Supp. 502 (D. Mass. 1996).

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