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United States v. Larsen

August 4, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 04 CR 29-Rudolph T. Randa, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED MAY 5, 2009

Before RIPPLE and SYKES, Circuit Judges, and LAWRENCE, District Judge.*fn1

David Larsen brutally beat Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, his ex-wife, at his home in Wisconsin. He then bound her with duct tape, stuffed her in a garbage can filled with snow, put the can in the back of his truck, and drove to a self-storage facility in Illinois. He left her there-still bound and in the snow-filled garbage can-in an unheated rented storage locker. She was discovered the next day, about an hour from death.

Larsen was charged with state and federal crimes; the state charges were resolved first. See State of Wisconsin v. Larsen,2007 WI App 147, 302 Wis. 2d 718, 736 N.W.2d 211. Thereafter in federal court, Larsen waived his right to a jury and after a trial to the court was convicted of two counts: kidnapping in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1), and interstate domestic violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2261(a)(2) and (b)(2) (the Interstate Domestic Violence Act). The district judge sentenced him to life in prison, which exceeded the recommended sentencing-guidelines range.

Larsen challenges both his convictions and his sentence. His first claim on appeal is a Commerce Clause challenge to the Interstate Domestic Violence Act; he contends that the Act unconstitutionally federalizes purely local violent crime with an insufficient nexus to interstate commerce. He next argues that his convictions for kidnapping and interstate domestic violence are multiplicitous in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. He also maintains that a warrantless search of his home on the afternoon of the victim's disappearance was unjustified under the emergency doctrine and therefore unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Finally, he challenges his life sentence to the extent that the judge's decision to impose it was based on Jendusa-Nicolai's having suffered a miscarriage three days after the attack.

We reject these arguments and affirm. The Interstate Domestic Violence Act punishes those who use "force, coercion, duress, or fraud" to cause a domestic partner to travel in interstate commerce and who commit a violent crime against the victim "in the course of, as a result of, or to facilitate" that interstate travel.18 U.S.C. § 2261(a)(2). This statute lies well within the scope of Congress's power to regulate the channels or instru-mentalities of, or persons in, interstate commerce. We further conclude that Larsen's convictions are not multiplicitous; the crimes of kidnapping and interstate domestic violence contain different elements, and each requires proof of a fact that the other does not. The district court's admission of physical evidence obtained during the warrantless search of Larsen's home was ultimately harmless, even if it was error; the evidence of Larsen's guilt was overwhelming and uncontroverted. Finally, Larsen's life sentence was not unreasonable, either on its own terms or because the judge's decision to impose it was based primarily on Jendusa-Nicolai's miscarriage.

I. Background

On January 31, 2004, David Larsen brutally attacked Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, his ex-wife, when she came to his home in Racine County, Wisconsin, to pick up their two young daughters. The couple had divorced three years earlier after an abusive marriage, and Jendusa-Nicolai had recently taken Larsen to court for nonpayment of child support. Larsen lured her into his home and began to beat her with a baseball bat, strangle, and smother her. When she did not succumb, he bound her head, ankles, and wrists with duct tape and placed her in a garbage can filled with snow. He then put the garbage can, with Jendusa-Nicolai inside, in the back of his pick-up truck and drove to a self-storage facility in Illinois where he had a rented storage locker. He left her there to die, in a cold storage locker, in the snow-filled garbage can with boxes wedged around it to prevent her from climbing out.

During the drive to Illinois, Jendusa-Nicolai managed to free her hands and call 911 from her cell phone. She gave Larsen's home address, and local law enforcement and rescue personnel broke into Larsen's home around 11 a.m. in an attempt to find Jendusa-Nicolai. They remained inside for about 15 minutes-just long enough to ascertain that she was not there. Jendusa-Nicolai was able to make two more calls from her cell phone: She called her husband at noon and called 911 a second time around 2 p.m. At one point along the route to Illinois, she tried to extend her hand outside the garbage can in an effort to attract the attention of passing motorists. Larsen saw this, hit her again, and confiscated her cell phone.

From the second and third phone calls, the police learned that Jendusa-Nicolai was bound and in the back of Larsen's truck. They also learned that JendusaNicolai's two daughters were missing. At about 3:30 p.m., law-enforcement officers and a rescue team reentered Larsen's home after the Racine County District Attorney concluded that exigent circumstances existed for a warrantless search. The police searched the house thoroughly for six hours looking for the two missing children as well as clues about Jendusa-Nicolai's whereabouts. They went through papers, played back voice-mail messages, and searched through Larsen's computer files. During this search, they observed a large quantity of blood in the front hall, as well as an overturned chair, a blood-stained bucket, sweatpants with duct tape around the ankles, and blood-stained gloves and socks. In the meantime other officers prepared a search-warrant application.

Police arrested Larsen around 6 p.m. that evening when he reported for work. He told investigators that his daughters were at his girlfriend's house but claimed he did not know anything about Jendusa-Nicolai's disappearance. Police recovered the two girls at about 9:45 p.m. and suspended the search of Larsen's home without any further information about Jendusa-Nicolai's location. The search warrant was issued at about 11 p.m.

The next morning, the police searched Larsen's wallet and found two business cards for a storage facility in Illinois. Police called the storage facility, and an employee checked Larsen's unit and heard moaning inside. Local police immediately responded and recovered Jendusa-Nicolai from inside the garbage can. Doctors later said she was about an hour from death: Her body temperature had dropped to 84 degrees, renal failure had begun, and she was frostbitten about her body. She was hospitalized and suffered a miscarriage two days later while still at the hospital; she estimated that she had been pregnant for about five weeks. All her toes had to be amputated due to frostbite, and her hearing was damaged because of the blows to her head.

Larsen was charged in state court with attempted first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of interference with child custody. See Larsen,2007 WI App 147, ¶ 1. A federal grand jury indicted Larsen on two counts: kidnapping, see 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1), and forcibly causing a former spouse to travel in interstate commerce while committing a crime of violence in the course of and to facilitate the travel, see id. § 2261(a)(2), (b)(2) (the Interstate Domestic Violence Act). Larsen moved to suppress the evidence recovered in the warrantless search of his home, but the district court denied the motion. Larsen pleaded no contest to the state charges, see Larsen, 2007 WI App 147, ¶ 13, and after sentencing he returned to federal court and opted for a bench trial. The case was tried to the court, and at the close of the evidence, Larsen moved to dismiss on two constitutional grounds. He argued first that the Interstate Domestic Violence Act exceeded Congress's ...

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