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Fourth Circuit Reverses Sex Case Based on Manufactured Jurisdiction Doctrine: Dhavamani

The Fourth Circuit overturns a sex case on manufactured jurisdiction, where the government attempted to change the state charges to federal.

Case Background

Dhavamani was charged with traveling in interstate commerce with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.  It was alleged that law enforcement created a fictitious profile for a woman named “Ally.”  Her listed age was 18 but in text communications with Dhavamani, “Ally” said that she was fifteen.  Ally was an undercover law enforcement officer. 

The two agreed to meet in West Virginia.  It is of note that Dhavamani lived in West Virginia at the time.  As he drove to meet her, “Ally” changed the location to the college tennis courts in Bluefield, Virginia, 1.3 miles away.  Once he made it there, he called “Ally” and there was no answer.  As he drove back to West Virginia, the police stopped him.

The "Manufactured Jurisdiction" Claim

Dhavamani argued that “manufactured jurisdiction” which “prohibits government agents from manipulating events to create the interstate element of a crime “for the sole purpose of transforming a state crime into a federal crime.” 

The police officers gave different reasons for why the meeting location changed:

“[Lieutenant Gary Weaver testified that:] There were a couple of concerns after we had set up that location. We had a couple of concerns. First of all, it was a summer night. A rec center, there may possibly be other kids around in that location and probably wasn’t a -- tactically a good idea to have someone come in that was, you know, looking for a minor into that, so we tried to set up a different location that was a little bit more secure for us and for the general public.” But State Trooper Jillian Yeager testified that the sole reason for changing the meeting location was to get Dhavamani across the state line and make this a federal case.

The district court stated that this was acceptable:

“The court believed that ‘there is no law or policy preventing the government and its agents from operating to create federal jurisdiction in this manner’ and that the court was ‘stuck with that.’”

The Appellate Court's Decision

On Appeal, the Fourth Circuit stated that this was plain error:  it was “an error that was “plain” and “affect[ed] substantial rights…[and the]error seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

The Court stated that remand was appropriate to determine if jurisdiction was manufactured under the proper legal standard. In other words, now that we know that this is wrong, who do we believe:

“We must remand this case for the district court to make a finding, under the correct legal standard, of whether the Government in fact changed the meeting location for this reason alone.

If the district court finds the Government changed the meeting location solely to create federal jurisdiction, the court should apply the manufactured jurisdiction doctrine, vacate the conviction, and dismiss for lack of federal jurisdiction in accordance with our precedent. If the district court does not so find, the manufactured jurisdiction doctrine offers Dhavamani no assistance.”

The Fourth Circuit issued a limited remand to the district court for further hearings.  

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