February 17, 2016
On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Musacchio v. United States. Petitioner Musacchio was convicted in a jury trial on two counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. At trial, the district court had incorrectly instructed the jury that the government had to prove more stringent elements than the statute actually required, but the government had failed to object. On appeal, Musacchio argued that the government had failed to present evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction under this more stringent standard. He also argued that one of the counts on which he was convicted had been barred by a statute of limitations, but had not raised this objection at trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected both challenges and affirmed Musacchio’s conviction.
The question before the Supreme Court was twofold: (1) how should federal courts assess a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence in a criminal case when a jury instruction adds an element to the charged crime and the Government fails to object; and (2) can a defendant successfully raise the general federal criminal statute of limitations for the first time on appeal?
By a vote of 9-0, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit, holding that (1) the challenge to sufficiency of the evidence should be assessed against the elements of the charged crime, rather than the elements set forth in the erroneous jury instruction; and (2) the statute of limitations bar could not be raised for the first time on appeal. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
To discuss the case, we have Mark H. Bonner, who is Associate Professor at Ave Maria School of Law.