State v. Heckel, 143 Wash.2d 824, 24 P.3d 404 (2001) (full-text).
As early as February 1996, defendant Heckel, an Oregon resident doing business as Natural Instincts, began sending unsolicited commercial email (UCE), or "spam." In 1997, he developed a 46-page on-line booklet entitled "How to Profit from the Internet." Soon, he was charging $39.95 for the booklet and was making 30 to 50 sales per month.
In June 1998, the Consumer Protection Division (CPA) of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office received complaints from the recipients of Heckel’s UCE messages. The complaints alleged that Heckel’s messages contained misleading subject lines and false transmission paths. As such, David Hill, an inspector from the CPA, informed Heckel of various actions that violated Washington’s Commercial Electronic Mail Act..
Even after an alleged conversation between Heckel and Hill in late June 1998, when Hill discussed with Heckel the provisions of the Act and the procedures he needed to follow, the Attorney General’s Office continued to receive consumer complaints alleging that Heckel’s bulke-mailing from Natural Instincts appeared to contain misleading subject lines, false or unusable return e-mail addresses, and false or misleading transmission paths.
On October 22, 1998, the State filed suit against Heckel, stating three causes of action: (1) Heckel violated the Commercial Electronic Mail Act ("Act") and the State's Consumer Protection Act ("CPA") by using false or misleading information in the subject line of his UCE messages; (2) Heckel had violated the Act and thus the CPA by misrepresenting information defining the transmission paths of his UCE messages; and (3) Heckel violated the CPA by failing to provide a valid return e-mail address to which bulk-mail recipients could respond.
Trial Court Proceedings
The issue at hand was whether the Act, which prohibits misrepresentation in the subject line or transmission path of any commercial e-mail message sent to Washington residents or from a Washington computer, unconstitutionally burdened interstate commerce. The trial court found that the Act violated the Dormant Commerce Clause and was "unduly restrictive and burdensome."
State Supreme Court Proceedings
The State challenged the trial court’s finding that the Act violated the dormant Commerce Clause — the principle that a state impermissibly intrudes on federal power when it enacts laws that unduly burden interstate commerce. Analysis of a state law under the dormant Commerce Clause generally follows a two-step process:
- (1) The court first determines whether the state law openly discriminates against interstate commerce in favor of intrastate economic interests, and
- (2) If the law is facially neutral, applying impartially to in-state and out-of-state businesses, the analysis moves to the second step, a balancing of the local benefits against the interstate burdens.
Here, the court found that the Act was not facially discriminatory. And, the balancing of the local benefits against the interstate burdens shows that 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 Act limits the harm that deceptive commercial e-mail causes Washington business and citizens. The Act prohibits e-mail solicitors from using misleading information in the subject line or transmission path of any commercial e-mail message sent to Washington residents. The local benefits of the Act outweigh any conceivable burdens the Act places on those sending commercial e-mail messages. Thus, the Act does not violate the dormant Commerce Clause.
- Revised Code of Washington, Chapter 19.190.