June 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: DOI Attorney’s Convictions of CFR Violations Affirmed

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Baldwin on Tuesday, February 18, 2014.

Charles Baldwin drove out of the Denver Federal Center at his workday’s end. While still on the Federal Center grounds, Commander Kevin Lundy stopped Mr. Baldwin’s truck because he’d seen him speeding and swerving to avoid a bicyclist, and he wanted to issue a warning. But before Commander Lundy could finish the warning, Mr. Baldwin drove off, ignoring shouted commands to stop. In response, Commander Lundy took to his police car and followed Mr. Baldwin off the Federal Center’s grounds, stopped him again, and asked for his driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.

According to Commander Lundy, Mr. Baldwin refused to comply and had to be forced from his vehicle and restrained with handcuffs. Commander Lundy issued various tickets and allowed Mr. Baldwin to go on his way.

After a bench trial before a federal magistrate judge, the court convicted Mr. Baldwin of three offenses. Two of these offenses — failing to comply with the lawful direction of a Federal police officer and impeding or disrupting the performance of a government employee’s official duties — were premised on federal regulations 41 C.F.R. § 102-74.385 and 41 C.F.R. § 102-74.390(c). The third — attempting to obstruct a peace officer — was based on Colorado state law and the Assimilative Crimes Act. Because Mr. Baldwin was an attorney for the Department of Interior, he appealed his convictions acting as his own lawyer.

Mr. Baldwin first argued that violating these two federal regulations wasn’t a crime, which were no more than administrative rules or policies. By some scratching, the court found that Congress did expressly authorize the General Services Administration and then the Department of Homeland Security to establish regulations for the protection and administration of property owned or occupied by the Federal Government and to prescribe “reasonable” penalties of “not more than 30 days” in prison and fines in the amounts allowed by Title 18.

Even if the regulations impose criminal penalties, Mr. Baldwin argued their terms were so vague they violated the Constitution’s due process guarantee. Criminal offenses must be defined with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. It’s clear from the terms of regulations that, whatever else they do or don’t proscribe, driving off while a uniformed officer is busy issuing a warning, and doing so over the officer’s instructions to stop, counts as disobeying that person’s directions and disrupting performance of his official duties. The regulations could perhaps be successfully challenged as impermissibly vague as applied in other situations, but under the law as it stands today, the court failed to see how they might be in this situation.

Next, Mr. Baldwin argued the regulations violated the Constitution’s due process guarantee because the regulations lack any mens rea requirement. However, neither 41 C.F.R. § 102-74.385 nor 41 C.F.R. § 102-74.390 makes any mention of a required mental element to complete the offenses they describe. However, a law’s silence about mens rea doesn’t necessarily mean violating it isn’t a crime, as Mr. Baldwin would have the court conclude. In fact, the courts of the United States have long said they will read criminal statutes as implicitly requiring proof of mens rea even when they don’t require such proof explicitly.

In sum, the evidence surrounding the initial stop easily supported the conclusion that Mr. Baldwin knew his conduct amounted to a disregard of a police officer’s lawful order and disrupted or impeded the officer’s duty on federal grounds.

Finally, Mr. Baldwin challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his third conviction under Colorado law and the Assimilative Crimes Act. Mr. Baldwin was accused of knowingly using “an obstacle” in a “substantial step toward” obstructing or hindering “the preservation of the peace by a peace officer, acting under color of his or her official authority,” while on federal property. The court found that the evidence was sufficient to show all this beyond a reasonable doubt, too. Rather than listen to a warning about how his speeding had endangered others — a warning Commander Lundy tried to issue under color of official authority in order to preserve the peace — Mr. Baldwin sought to use his vehicle as an obstacle to get away (to “obstruct” Commander Lundy’s inquiry). And whatever his status under federal law, Commander Lundy, along with his fellow Federal Protective Service officers, was clearly and expressly treated as a “peace officer” for purposes of Colorado law.

The Tenth Circuit pointed out that Mr. Baldwin’s points were not without some power. But in light of the circumstances, the court was compelled to affirm.