On February 4, 2003, 54-year-old naturalized United States citizen of Iranian descent Hessam Ghane was admitted to an Overland Park Hospital emergency room, stating that he was suicidal because he was depressed and out of work. The chemist by trade told a physician's assistant that he intended to kill himself using the cyanide that sat in a bottle, half-filled under his kitchen sink. The assistant told authorities, who went to the home of Ghane--who a future appeals court would say has a "history of significant mental illness"--and discovered the chemical.
If the suicidal man had said he thought he may hang himself, jump off a bridge or slit his wrists, he would have likely received nothing more than direction to counseling or services by the state. Because he said he was considering cyanide, Ghane received an eight-year federal prison sentence.
The case was at the center of a Wall Street Journal report released this week taking a look at how a “rarely used federal law passed in 1998” as part of a chemical-weapons treaty has delivered hefty sentences in at least two instances that have led to a discussion on states’ rights vs. federal overreach.
Under the law that applies to Ghane , it can be a crime to possess a vast range of toxic chemicals, including common household cleaners, that can harm people or animals. WSJ notes that the law exempts "peaceful" uses, such as cleaning a kitchen with ammonia, but pouring it into a goldfish tank could result in a prison term.
A lawsuit challenging the law points out that it gives federal authorities “almost limitless discretion to hand pick” activities to prosecute. WSJ reports:
In March, a federal appeals court in St. Louis upheld Dr. Ghane's conviction, though it said applying the chemical-weapons law to a contemplated suicide might be considered a "close call."
The law is now a front in a war over the reach of federal criminal law. Critics from across the political spectrum argue that Congress has passed so many criminal statutes that it has become too easy for the average citizen to unknowingly run afoul of them.
"Real News" opened Thursday addressing the case and, more broadly, whether or not the federal government is once again arbitrarily usurping state’s rights. States have the ability and legal authority to prosecute these crimes, but “federal” seems to have trumped them once again.
Armed with a Venn diagram, panelist Will Cain points out that this case goes back to ongoing discussions on the show in regards to the use of the Commerce Clause as a source of power for every federal policy overreach imaginable. The law may provide some good by punishing terrorists who would use chemical weapons to hurt large groups, or individuals as mentioned in another WSJ example, who assault others with chemicals for having an affair with their spouse. But can the law's overreach, as in the Ghane case, be ignored?