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Fowler v. United States - 563 U.S. 668, 131 S. Ct. 2045 (2011)

Rule:

In the context of 18 U.S.C.S. § 1512(a)(1)(C), in a case where the defendant does not have particular federal law enforcement officers in mind, the Government must show a reasonable likelihood that, had, e.g., the victim communicated with law enforcement officers, at least one relevant communication would have been made to a federal law enforcement officer. That is to say, where the defendant kills a person with an intent to prevent communication with law enforcement officers generally, that intent includes an intent to prevent communications with federal law enforcement officers only if it is reasonably likely under the circumstances that (in the absence of the killing) at least one of the relevant communications would have been made to a federal officer. The Government need not show that such a communication, had it occurred, would have been federal beyond a reasonable doubt, nor even that it is more likely than not. For one can act with an intent to prevent an event from occurring without it being true beyond a reasonable doubt (or even more likely than not) that the event would otherwise occur. But the Government must show that the likelihood of communication to a federal officer was more than remote, outlandish, or simply hypothetical.

Facts:

While preparing to rob a bank, petitioner Fowler and others were discovered by a local police officer, whom Fowler killed. Fowler was convicted of violating the federal witness tampering statute, which made it a crime "to kill another person, with intent to... prevent the communication by any person to a [Federal] law enforcement officer" of "information relating to the... possible commission of a Federal offense." Rejecting Fowler's argument that the evidence was insufficient to show that he had killed the officer intending to prevent him from communicating with a federal officer, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a showing of a possible or potential communication to federal authorities was sufficient. Fowler filed a petition for certiorari, which was granted.

Issue:

Was Fowler's conviction proper?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States determined that remand for further proceedings was warranted because, where a defendant killed a person with an intent to prevent that person from communicating with law enforcement officers in general but the defendant did not have federal law enforcement officers (or any specific individuals) particularly in mind, the Government must show that there was a reasonable likelihood that a relevant communication would have been made to a federal officer. The Court left it to the lower courts to determine whether, and how, the standard applied in Fowler's particular case.

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