By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the conviction of the man dubbed the "Millennium Bomber" on a federal explosives charge that increased his prison sentence, effectively handing prosecutors an additional tool to use in terrorism cases.
In an 8 to 1 decision, the court ruled that Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian member of al-Qaeda, violated the explosives law when he entered the country in December 1999 as part of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport that New Year's Eve. Justice Stephen G. Breyer cast the lone dissenting vote.
The government considered the case a potentially crucial one for terrorism prosecutions, and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey made his first appearance before the Supreme Court when he argued the case in March.
At issue was a law that mandates a 10-year prison term for anyone who "carries an explosive during the commission" of any federal felony.
Ressam entered the United States from Canada with explosives hidden in the trunk of his rental car. He was arrested after a U.S. customs officer stopped him for further inspection and asked him to fill out a customs declaration.
Ressam lied on the form, providing a false name and nationality. He was later convicted on nine counts, including the charge that he carried explosives during the commission of a felony: making the false customs declaration.
Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but the government appealed the sentence, which it considered too lenient. Ressam filed a cross-appeal that challenged his conviction on the explosives count.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, threw out Ressam's conviction on that count, saying it was unrelated to the underlying felony.
In overturning the decision, the Supreme Court found that Congress did not intend to require prosecutors to prove such a relationship.
"There is no need to consult dictionary definitions of the word 'during' in order to arrive at the conclusion that respondent engaged in the precise conduct" described in the federal statute, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
In his dissent, Breyer said the majority's ruling "would permit conviction of any individual who legally carries explosives at the time that he engages in a totally unrelated felony." He also argued that the definition of explosives in the statute is overly broad.