Why was a Maine teenager prosecuted in federal court for a boatyard break-in? The New York Times asks that question in a case in which the suspect’s family blames a connection to former President George H. W. Bush.
When two intruders, 19 and 14 years old, saw what they thought were video surveillance cameras, they set fire to the building, burning it down along with several boats and engines. One engine belonged to Bush, whose summer house is seven miles away. Soon after the July 2002 fire, federal agents told the 14-year-old suspect’s mother that the men had “blown up the president’s boat” in a possible ” terrorist act.” One federal firearms agent said the incident had raised “national security concerns.”
The 14-year-old’s case was turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s office; he was found guilty and given the maximum sentence: 30 months in prison. Paula Silsby, U.S. Attorney in Portland, Me., denied any connection with Bush, and said the case case qualified for federal jurisdiction because “this was a crime of violence.” It also qualified because the local prosecutor had turned the case over to her, she said, and “there was substantial federal interest,” both because the boatyard was engaged in interstate commerce and because of the seriousness of the crime.
Barry Feld, a juvenile law expert at the University of Minnesota Law School, said arson did not make a juvenile crime a federal crime, not even a fire with millions of dollars in damage. “Kids burn down expensive houses all the time and they don’t get charged in federal court,” he said. Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said that for a juvenile case to be tried in federal court, there must be “a substantial federal interest,” the state court must refuse to take jurisdiction, the state must not have available programs for the juvenile or there must a particularly serious act of violence, including a gun or drug involvement.