(CN) - Attorneys for a Virginia man sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison for robbing a local drug dealer asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to overturn his conviction on an interstate commerce charge.
David Anthony Taylor, a member of the "Southwest Goonz" gang, was found guilty in July 2013 of violating the Hobbs Act, a federal statute which prohibits interference with interstate commerce through extortionate means such as theft or blackmail.
Enacted in 1946, the Hobbs Act was originally designed to limit racketeering and public corruption activity in labor unions and other spheres of political influence.
In his argument before the Justices, attorney Dennis Jones said that prosecutors failed to prove that Taylor's actions affected commercial activity in multiple states, and suggested that the government may have embellished the victim's status as a drug dealer.
Jones also questioned whether marijuana grown in a Virginia residence for personal use would effectively trigger federal charges under the Hobbs Act.
But according to a 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich, homegrown marijuana is considered commercial property under federal law, justices said.
"It seems to make it completely irrelevant whether the drug trafficking was intrastate or interstate, because in either case, it was commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction," Justice Elena Kagan said.
Jones argued that government regulation of marijuana under Raich does not necessarily extend to effect commercial activity.
"They're standalone elements, from our view," Jones said.
"When you manufacture methamphetamine... those ingredients, Coleman fuel, lye, phosphorous, they all travel in interstate commerce," Jones said.
"If the commodity itself is a standalone, if that's the interpretation of the statute, then commerce is affected by the taking of the commodity subject just because its regulated, nothing more," he continued.
In his rebuttal, Justice Department attorney Anthony Yang pointed to a depletion of assets theory, pointing to evidence that Taylor's charge followed a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the Southwest Goonz after a pattern of "violent and dangerous robberies" emerged targeting local drug dealers in Roanoke, Va.
"As a normal matter, robberies of individuals just don't fall within the Commerce Clause. But what we have here is the robbery of marijuana, which we know from Raich, Congress regulates the trade in marijuana. It's the marijuana trade," Yang said.
In a hypothetical example, Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether theft of an illegal substance on a minor scale, such as one person stealing a joint from another, would also affect commerce.
"When you're robbing just a mere individual who's not a business or engaged in a business... in the context of a robbery, that raises different questions and it's much more difficult to establish a necessary nexus," Yang said.
"What we have in this case is robbery of the commodity, marijuana, from people engaged in its trade when we know-we know that falls well within commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction," Yang continued.
"In the robbery of a drug dealer, it still requires an independent finding about whether or not there was this effect on commerce," Jones said in his closing statement. "That's what we're suggesting should take place."
Jones has not yet returned Courthouse News' phone call requesting comment.
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