The Travel Act | Free human rights


The Travel Act, 18 USC § 1952, makes it a federal crime to travel, use mail, or use any facility in interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of promoting “illegal activity.”

When passed in 1961, the Travel Act was originally intended to give the federal government a head start in the fight against organized crime. An example of the kind of situation the travel law was meant to target is where a crime boss resided in one state and carried on an illegal business in another. In such a situation, there were concerns that neither state had jurisdiction to prosecute the criminal count for operating the illegal business and, in the absence of something like the travel law, the driving would go unpunished. .

From its origins in the fight against organized crime, the travel law has since been used in a variety of other contexts, including in conjunction with the Corrupt Practices Abroad Act (“FCPA”), as a predicate offense under the Organizations Under the Influence of Racketeering and Corruption Act (“RICO”), and most recently in health care corrupt payment prosecutions.

The Travel Act makes it a criminal offense for a person to:

  • travel in interstate or foreign commerce or use the courier or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce (the “element of interstate commerce“);
  • with the intention of:
    • distribute the proceeds of any illegal activity,
    • committing a crime of violence to promote illegal activity, or
    • promote, manage, establish, continue or facilitate the promotion, management, establishment or prosecution of any illegal activity (the “”element of intention“), and
  • subsequently perform or attempt to perform any of these acts (the “performance element“).[1]

What is the element of interstate commerce?

The element of interstate commerce is the keystone of the Travel Act and what gives the federal government its “jurisdictional hook” to prohibit the conduct in question. Typically, individual states have “the primary authority to define and apply criminal law”.[2] The federal government has the power to create criminal offenses only within the powers delegated to it by the Constitution.[3] Among the powers that the Constitution delegates to Congress is the power “”[t]o regulate trade with foreign nations and between various states. . . . “[4]

Thus, some link to interstate or foreign commerce is essential for the federal government to have jurisdiction over conduct that the Travel Act prohibits. However, the exact nature of this connection and its sufficiency to justify a conviction under the Travel Act remains a source of contention. An interstate phone call or email or use of interstate banking system may be enough to respond to interstate commerce element.

What are the elements of intention and performance?

In order to satisfy the intentional element, the government must show that the defendant intended to facilitate an activity that it knew to be an “illegal activity” under federal or state law. For the performance element, the government must show that the defendant has done or attempted to perform an act to distribute the proceeds of an illegal activity, commit a crime of violence to promote an illegal activity or otherwise facilitate the ‘carrying out an illegal activity.

What is illegal activity?

For the purposes of the Travel Act, “illegal activity” is defined as:

  • any commercial enterprise involving gambling, alcohol (where federal excise tax has not been paid), narcotics or controlled substances, or prostitution offenses in violation of federal law or the state,
  • extortion, bribery, or arson in violation of federal or state law, or
  • money laundering.[5]

If the illegal activity involves gambling, alcohol, drugs or prostitution, the government must prove that there was a commercial enterprise. A business enterprise is an ongoing course of action or series of transactions designed to generate a profit. It is not enough for a person to engage in sporadic, isolated or occasional activity associated with these vices. In addition, the business enterprise does not need to be the defendant’s primary employment, nor does it need to be an ongoing activity. It is sufficient that the defendant simply participated in the conduct.

What are the penalties for violating the travel law?

If the law is broken with intent to commit a crime of violence to carry on an illegal activity, the maximum penalty is twenty years in prison. If someone dies as a result of the violence, the penalty is life imprisonment. If the law is broken with intent to commit any other act for illegal activity, the maximum penalty is five years in prison.

[1] 18 USC § 1952.

[2] United States vs. Lopez, 514 US 549, 561 n.3 (1995) (citing Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 US 619, 635 (1993) (citing Engle against Isaac, 456 US 107, 128 (1982))).

[3] Screw against US, 325 US 91, 109 (1945) (pluralist opinion).

[4] See US Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.

[5] 18 USC § 1952 (b).

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