Local attorney provides insight into the charge against the Douglas church fires suspect

Ridenour is being charged in violation of Title 18, US Code, Section 844(i).
Published: May. 26, 2023 at 10:54 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) -The federal government released their complaint statement for suspect Eric Ridenour in connection with two church fires in Douglas that occurred on May 22, 2023.

Ridenour will be charged in federal court in violation of Title 18 of United State Code, Section 844(i), dealing with interstate and foreign commerce.

“If I had to guess I would think that more than likely it will be enough to effect on interstate or foreign commerce, but it’s possible it could certainly go either way,” said Nicholas Loncar, defense attorney for Tucson Defenders.

In the complaint, it stated that Eric Ridenour “did maliciously damage or destroy or attempt to damage or destroy by means of fire or an explosive two buildings, Saint Stephens Episcopal Church… and First Presbyterian Church… used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce.”

Loncar said the statue has been broadly defined over the years.

“Interstate commerce is broadly interpreted but a little less so in the ninth circuit, which Arizona is a part, so there will likely be a motion on that issue,” said Loncar.

Loncar added that it is likely the defense will argue that the church is non-commercial.

“With churches being so non-commercial in their activities, that at least might be the strongest argument against qualifying a church as being or affecting interstate commerce, especially in a circuit that takes a narrower view of those government powers,” said Loncar.

In the complaint, the federal government lays out multiple reasons for using this statute. Loncar said the argument for the churches being a part of a national organization could be enough to win a conviction.

“While the Ninth Circuit might restrict the government a little more than other circuits, it does seem like the US Attorney’s Office feels they have enough to get over that hurdle due to the churches being involved in national organizations,” said Loncar.

If charged, this section has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and can be imposed for up to 20 years.

And if this case does not result in a charge at the federal level, the state still has a role to play.

“If the federal case was dismissed, there would be still the option to pursue state charges. But even if convicted, and if a person pleads guilty in either proceeding, that plea can be used in the other court to effectively prove the same elements of the crime,” said Loncar.

But the state does not have to wait for a federal decision to bring up charges.

“There’s a doctrine in the law called the separate sovereigns doctrine that would allow a person to be charged both in state court and in federal court and convicted and both punished in both. And that doesn’t violate the double jeopardy rights that we have, because they’re separate sovereigns,” said Loncar.

Loncar added that any judge who takes this case would also likely be looking at the First Presbyterian Church’s role in preparing migrants for the end of Title 42 and their historical value.

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