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Chairman Nadler Statement for Markup of H.R. 1986, the Effective Prosecution of Biological Toxins and Agents Act

Washington, June 12, 2019

Washington, D.C. –Today, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement for the markup of H.R. 1986, the Effective Prosecution of Biological Toxins and Agents Act:

"H.R. 1986, the "Effective Prosecution of Biological Toxins and Agents Act of 2019," would correct a "scrivener’s error" that has unintentionally resulted in an incomplete list of biological toxins and agents that are prohibited under the law. I support this important bill, introduced by the Gentleman from Texas, Mr. Ratcliffe, the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, because it will help ensure the safety of our citizens and our nation.

"In 1990, Congress imposed criminal penalties with respect to the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, acquisition, retention or possession of any biological agents, toxins, or delivery systems for use as a weapon. In 2001, Congress went even further and added section 175b to Title 18, to criminalize the possession, by unregistered individuals or restricted persons, of certain biological agents that are termed “select agents” determined to be such by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. A person found guilty under section 175b can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.

"When Congress originally enacted section 175b, and in subsequent amendments, we referred to specific sections of the Code of Federal Regulations that included lists of a number of biological agents and toxins. We last amended section 175b in 2004, but, after that, HHS reformatted some sections of the Code of Federal Regulations and inadvertently rendered the references in section 175b incomplete.

"One of the select agents that was accidentally left off the list of prohibited substances is ricin, a poison found in castor beans. Ricin is inexpensive, easy to make, and very toxic.

"This result, the consequence of a drafting error, is clearly not what Congress intended. Unfortunately, there have already been real-life consequences for this error. Last September, for example, the district court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed the indictment against William Christopher Gibbs, a self-avowed white supremacist who was charged with the unregistered possession of ricin. In dismissing the Gibbs indictment, the Court stated it:

"Appreciates the potential dangers associated with individuals possessing potentially hazardous agents and toxins without permission to do so. Equally, though, the Court takes very seriously the principle that citizens ought to have fair and clear warning of the conduct for which they can be held criminal responsible. It falls to Congress to write criminal laws, or to amend them if they yield unfair or unwanted results. The role of the courts, on the other hand, is limited to fairly reading and applying the laws Congress writes; not to change them."

"The Senate has already done its job, by passing an identical version of H.R. 1986. It is now our turn. The possession and distribution of ricin is dangerous and should be included in the current statute, as we had intended. This legislation corrects this error and its unintended, but serious consequences.I thank the Gentleman from Texas for introducing this bill, and I urge all of my colleagues to support it."

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