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State of Washington v. Jason Heckel, doing business as Natural Instincts

24 P.3d 404 (Supreme Court State of Washington, June 7, 2001), cert. denied, 122 S.Ct. 467 (2001)

Reversing the decision of the trial court, Washington's Supreme Court holds that Washington's Antispam law, chapter  19.190 RCW, does not run afoul of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.  Washington's Antispam law regulates the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail ("UCE") either to an e-mail address held by a Washington resident, or from a computer located in Washington.  The statute mandates that such e-mail may not "misrepresent or disguise … the message's point of origin or transmission path, or use a misleading subject line."  The statute also requires the sender of UCE to include a valid e-mail address to which recipients can respond.  In holding that the statute did not violate the Commerce Clause, the Court determined that the statute did not discriminate against Interstate Commerce, because it imposed the same obligations on everyone who sent e-mail to Washington residents, whether they reside in Washington or elsewhere.  The Court further held that the statute served the important State interests of protecting local ISPs, owners of domain names and Internet users from the unwanted costs associated with UCE, while imposing, at most, minimal burdens on interstate commerce by obligating those who send UCE to provide truthful subject lines and transmission paths.

E-mail typically has a subject line, visible in the recipient's e-mail program, that describes the subject of the e-mail.  E-mail is also accompanied by transmission information, which typically indicates the origin of the e-mail.  Washington enacted chapter 19.190 RCW to regulate the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail. Among other things, the statute prohibits the inclusion of false or misleading information in either the subject line of e-mail, or in the e-mail's transmission path.  The statute also requires the sender to include a valid return address to which the recipients of UCE can respond.

The State of Washington commenced this action against Jason Heckel, alleging that he had sent UCE in violation of Washington's Antispam statute.  Heckel argued that the Antispam statute was unconstitutional, because it ran afoul of the Commerce Clause.  The trial court agreed, and dismissed plaintiff's suit.  On appeal, Washington's Supreme Court reversed, holding that the statute did not violate the Commerce Clause. 

"The Commerce Clause grants Congress the 'power . . . (t)o regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.' U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 3."  The "dormant" Commerce Clause prohibits states from enacting laws that discriminate against interstate commerce in favor of local interests.  The Commerce Clause does not totally bar states from enacting laws that place burdens on Interstate Commerce, however.  When a state law regulates both interstate and intrastate interests evenhandedly:

to effectuate a legitimate local public interest, and its effects on interstate commerce are only incidental, it will be upheld unless the burden imposed on such commerce is clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits. If a legitimate local purpose is found, then the question becomes one of degree. And the extent of the burden that will be tolerated will of course depend on the nature of the local interest involved, and on whether it could be promoted as well with a lesser impact on interstate activities .

The court found that Washington's Antispam law did not discriminate against interstate commerce.  Rather, it prohibited all people, whether they lived inside or outside of Washington, from sending spam with false subject lines or transmission paths to Washington residents or from computers located in Washington.

The court further found that the local benefits the statute achieved far outweighed any burdens it placed on interstate commerce.  The court held that the statute protected local ISPs, e-mail users and owners of forged domain names from the unwanted costs and burdens placed upon them by UCE.  ISPs were protected from the burdens placed on their equipment and system capacity as a result of their transmission and storage of unwanted UCE.  Innocent owners of domain names which were falsely inserted into the transmission path of UCE to hide the UCE's true origin were protected from being deluged by e-mail from recipients of the UCE complaining about the same.  And users of the Internet were protected from the waste of time and money they would expend in reviewing UCE and taking steps to ensure they did not receive it again, particularly these Internet users who paid for Internet access by the minute or hour.

Conversely, held the court, the statute imposed no burden on Interstate Commerce, because it mandates only that the senders of UCE provide accurate subject lines and transmission paths.  Said the court:

To be weighed against the Act's local benefits, the only burden the Act places on spammers is the requirement of truthfulness, a requirement that does not burden commerce at all but actually 'facilitates it by eliminating fraud and deception.'

The court accordingly held that the statute did not violate the Commerce Clause.  In reaching this conclusion the court rejected defendant's argument that the statute violated the Commerce Clause by subjecting him to conflicting and inconsistent state regulation.  While a number of states had enacted legislation governing the transmission of UCE:

the truthfulness requirements of the Act do not conflict with any of the requirements in the other states' statutes, and it is inconceivable that any state would ever pass a law requiring spammers to use misleading subject lines or transmission paths. Some states' statutes do include additional requirements; for example, some statutes require spammers to provide contact information (for opt-out purposes) or to introduce subject lines with such labels as 'ADV' or 'ADV-ADLT.'  But because such statutes 'merely create additional, but not irreconcilable, obligations,' they 'are not considered to be 'inconsistent'' for purposes of the dormant Commerce Clause analysis.

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