A group of South Carolinians busted in a major cockfighting operation in a rural town showed surprising legal savvy in trying to avoid federal prosecution, but in the end cotton balls and chicken feed cooked their collective goose.
They were well aware of the fact that cockfighting is a misdemeanor in the Palmetto State while the feds consider it a felony, which is why they made sure their fighting roosters hadn’t crossed state lines. They even checked spectators’ IDs and the license plates on their cars to make sure that they, too, were locals, said one of their attorneys, C. Rauch Wise of Greenwood.
But what the organizers apparently didn’t know is that four years ago the federal law against cockfighting was expanded to include any event that affected interstate or foreign commerce, not just those in which animals had traveled long distances for a fight.
So the feds were able to secure convictions based on the seemingly innocuous supplies they found at the site of the cockfights, such as cotton balls and chicken feed that were manufactured outside the state. They flew witnesses in from across the country and as far away as London to testify about the origin of the items and prove interstate commerce, Wise said.
“Under that theory, there is virtually no (state) crime the federal government cannot make illegal,” he added.
His argument that cockfighting in this case was “the very definition of a state activity” and that the government overstepped its bounds has fallen flat with the courts. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the matter.
“The irony is that this case arose in South Carolina,” Wise said, “the home of the fighting Gamecocks.”