In United States v. Pugh, No. 21-13136 (Jan. 18, 2024) (Lagoa, Brasher, Boulee (N.D. Ga.)), the Court affirmed Ms. Pugh’s conviction.

The Court addressed an issue of first impression regarding the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 231(a)(3), which prohibits impeding law enforcement officers during a civil disorder affecting interstate commerce.  It was alleged that during a protest in Mobile, Alabama, Ms. Pugh shattered the window of a police car that was blocking protestors from walking on the interstate.  Ms. Pugh moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that § 231(a)(3) is facially unconstitutional because it: (1) exceeds Congress’s power to legislate under the Commerce Clause, (2) is a substantially overbroad regulation of speech and expressive conduct, activities protected by the First Amendment, (3) is a content-based restriction of expressive activities in violation of the First Amendment, and (4) fails to provide fair notice and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

With regard to Ms. Pugh’s first argument–that § 231(a)(3) is unconstitutional because it exceeds Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause–the Court disagreed because the statute’s jurisdictional element–the requirement that the civil disorder “in any way or degree obstruct[], delay[], or adversely affect[] commerce”–is enough to limit the statute’s scope to constitutional applications.  If a criminal statute contains a jurisdictional element that limits the statute to constitutional applications, that jurisdictional element immunizes the statute from a facial constitutional attack.  Ms. Pugh had argued that the criminal act committed was too removed from any connection to commerce, but the Court, while acknowledging that argument to be a strong one, found that the jurisdictional element of interstate commerce need not link directly to the criminalized act itself as long as the object of the criminal act is sufficiently connected to interstate commerce.

With regard to Ms. Pugh’s second argument–that §231(a)(3) violates the First Amendment because it broadly prohibits protected speech and expressive conduct–the Court held that the statute does not affect must speech at all.  That is, although “interfere,” by itself, could include speech, it is best read in § 231(a)(3) alongside “obstruct” and “impede” as prohibiting someone from hindering a law enforcement officer or fireman with more than mere words.  Here, it was merely hypothetical that § 231(a)(3) could be enforced against speech.  And the mere fact that one can conceive of some impermissible applications of a statute is not sufficient to render it susceptible to an overbreadth challenge.  The Court note that it need not decide today whether the statute might prohibit certain kinds of expressive activities that have the effect of blocking police officers from quieting a riot—such as directing others to riot.

With regard to Ms. Pugh’s third argument–that the statute on its face is a content-based restriction of activities protected by the First Amendment–the Court held that § 231(a)(3) is not a content-based regulation of speech.  If it affects speech at all, § 231(a)(3) is content-neutral.  Because it applies to “any act to obstruct, impede, or interfere with any fireman or law enforcement officer” performing official duties “incident to and during the commission of a civil disorder” affecting commerce or a federally protected function, it does not draw distinctions based on the message conveyed by the relevant act.

Finally, with regard to Ms. Pugh’s fourth argument–that § 231(a)(3) violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because it is vague on its face–the Court disagreed.  Here, because Ms. Pugh allegedly engaged in conduct clearly proscribed by the statute, she cannot complain of the vagueness of the law as applied to the conduct of others.