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Ex-Tennis Pro's Child Abuse Is a Crime, but It's Not Forced Labor

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Federal jurisdiction is a great thing -- when you can get it. And all too often, attempts to get it are too clever by half.

From Michigan comes the allegation that making "children cook, clean, and do the laundry," and beating them if they don't, constitutes "forced labor" under 18 USC § 1589. The Sixth Circuit ruled Monday in U.S. v. Toviave that state-level child abuse doesn't violate federal law -- or, at least, it's not "forced labor."

It All Starts with a Former Tennis Pro

Michigan authorities became involved after allegations that Jean-Claude Toviave, a former tennis pro from Togo, was beating his children, The Associated Press reports. The feds got involved when a state investigator suspected the children might have been brought here illegally.

Investigators found fake immigration documents in Toviave's home, and he pleaded guilty to fraud and human trafficking -- but not forced labor, though he was convicted of that after a trial.

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'Child Abuse Is a State Crime, but Not a Federal Crime'

"Why is this [case] not tried under the child abuse laws?" asked one perceptive juror during the trial. Michigan apparently tried to add up household chores and beating to equal forced labor, but the Sixth Circuit wouldn't have it.

Cribbing some rationale from Bond v. United States (you know, the one where Carol Bond tried to poison her husband's lover and ended up with an indictment for violating an international chemical weapons treaty), the theme of the Sixth Circuit's opinion was a distaste for expanding the scope of federal law into places where the federal government really doesn't belong. "[T]reating household chores and required homework as forced labor because that conduct was enforced by abuse either turns the forced labor statute into a federal child abuse statute, or renders the requirement of household chores a federal crime," the court said.

The Sixth Circuit had to walk through a minefield here. On the one hand, it repeatedly condemned the "reprehensible, abusive force" that Toviave used. On the other hand, it couldn't find that "household chores" were such onerous forms of labor that the federal forced labor statute became involved. Add all that to concerns about federalism.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't change much: Toviave is still in prison for all the other things he did.

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