Domestic Terrorism Is Not a Federal Charge... Yet


According to the Rand Corporation, “domestic terrorism involves violence against the civilian population or infrastructure of a nation—often but not always by citizens of that nation and often with the intent to intimate, coerce, or influence national policy.”


The ACLU points out that “Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT ACT expanded the definition of terrorism to cover ‘domestic,’ as opposed to international, terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act ‘dangerous to human life’ that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States and if they do not, may be regarded as international terrorism.”


What happened in Charlottesville in mid-August was a horrific and tragic act of domestic terrorism.


James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old man from Ohio, attended the Unite the Right rally – a white nationalist rally to protest the removal of a Confederate General Robert E. Lee statue – on Saturday, August 12, 2017.


After a local state of emergency was declared in Charlottesville due to violent clashes between protestors and counter-protestors, Fields drove his Dodge Challenger “at a high rate of speed” into a sedan, which then crashed into a minivan. The sedan and minivan were both pushed into a crowd of pedestrians due to the impact of the crash. Fields fled the scene.


The crash injured 19 people and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville.


Two documentary filmmakers said they saw Fields’ Challenger speeding down the street, hitting multiple people before hurtling into the crowd.


Deia Schlosberg, one of the filmmakers, said, “It seemed like it was trying to drive through the crowd. The other cars were enveloped in the crowd. I bet those cars saved a ton more lives because it couldn’t keep going.”


The Commonwealth of Virginia has charged Fields for:


  • Second-degree murder;
  • Five counts of malicious wounding;
  • Three counts of aggravated malicious wounding; and
  • Failure to stop in an accident that involved death.


When asked about his opinion on the crash, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Good Morning America that, “It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute.”


The problem with that is while the United States Code does define domestic terrorism, domestic terrorism is not actually a charge. It might be in the future, though.


What Is the Legal Definition Domestic Terrorism?


As noted by the ACLU, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113B of the U.S. Code defines domestic terrorism as activities that:


  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
  • Appear to be intended
  • To intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
  • To influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
  • To affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.


According to this definition, Fields could potentially be charged with domestic terrorism if it existed as an offense. If Fields had rammed his car into a crowd of people for ISIS, he would definitely be charged with international terrorism.


In 1995, Timothy McVeigh used a truck bomb to kill 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. His actions were called “the worst act of domestic terrorism” up to that point. Yet, he wasn’t charged with, convicted of, or executed for terrorism crimes. His charges related to killing federal agents and other federal crimes.


So will domestic terrorism ever be classified as an actual crime?


The Future for Domestic Terrorism as a Charge


Houston Domestic Terrorism Attorney


The Department of Justice has supposedly been drafting legislation that would specifically name domestic terrorism as a federal crime. The Justice Department’s National Security Division has been working on the proposal to Congress since Obama’s presidency and continues to work on it now.


Just because this legislation is in the works, though, doesn’t mean it will necessarily come to fruition. Some believe it would help clarify specific instances – Charlottesville, for example – and some are hesitant to use the word “terrorism” due to its dire connotations.


Either way, if someone commits an act of domestic terrorism, the government will find a way to charge that individual for the crimes he or she commits, regardless of whether they are actually charged with domestic terrorism.


If you find yourself facing federal charges, terroristic or not, contact an experienced Texas federal criminal defense lawyer to discuss your case today.