SCOTUS Says Hobbs Act Applies to Drug Robberies

     (CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday held the government can prosecute a robbery of drug dealers under federal law without having to first prove the drugs were intended for sale across state lines.
     The 7-1 ruling upheld the conviction of Virginia gang member David Taylor who broke into the home of a drug dealer in August 2009 and made off with marijuana, drug proceeds and a cell phone.
     Taylor’s gang, the “Southwest Goonz,” specialized in such robberies, reasoning that dealers kept drugs and the proceeds from their sales in their homes, and that they’d be reluctant to report the thefts to police.
     Taylor was indicted under the Hobbs Act in July 2012, but his first trial resulted in a hung jury. A second jury convicted him on July 25, 2014, and he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, three years supervised release and a $1,000 fine.
     The Hobbs Act, enacted in 1946, states that anyone who delays or otherwise affects commerce by robbery or extortion, or conspires to do so, will be subject to fines, up to 20 years in prison, or both, on each count.
     Taylor appealed, contending both that the government failed to introduce sufficient evidence to establish his robberies affected interstate commerce, and that the district court erred by preventing him from showing that the particular drugs he tried to steal did not affect interstate commerce.
     The Fourth Circuit held that because drug dealing in the aggregate necessary affects interstate commerce, the government was simply required to prove that Taylor depleted or attempted to deplete the assets of such an operation.
     The Supreme Court agreed to take a look at the issue in a grant of certiorari on Oct. 1, 2015.
     In his opinion for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said the answer to the question posed by the case, was “straightforward and dictated by our precedent.”
     “We held in Gonzales v. Raich … that the Commerce Clause gives Congress authority to regulate the national market for marijuana, including the authority to proscribe the purely intrastate production, possession, and sale of this controlled substance,” Alito wrote. “Because Congress may regulate these intrastate activities based on their aggregate effect on interstate commerce, it follows that Congress may also regulate intrastate drug theft. And since the Hobbs Act criminalizes robberies and attempted robberies that affect any commerce ‘over which the United States has jurisdiction’ … the prosecution in a Hobbs Act robbery case satisfies the Act’s commerce element if it shows that the defendant robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds.
     “By targeting a drug dealer in this way, a robber necessarily affects or attempts to affect commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction,” Alito added.
     But Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, said his colleagues had taken a “dangerous step” in construing the Hobbs Act is a way that he believes “conflicts with the Constitution, with our precedents, and with longstanding protections for the accused.”
     “Under the Court’s decision today, the Government can obtain a Hobbs Act conviction without proving that the defendant’s robbery in fact affected interstate commerce — or any commerce,” Thomas wrote. “The Court’s holding creates serious constitutional problems and extends our already expansive, flawed commerce-power precedents. I would construe the Hobbs Act in accordance with constitutional limits and hold that the Act punishes a robbery only when the Government proves that the robbery itself affected interstate commerce.
     He continued: “Punishing a local robbery — one that affects only intrastate commerce or other intrastate activity — cannot satisfy that standard. Punishing a local robbery does not bear a ‘direct relation’ to the regulation of interstate commerce, so it would not be “necessary.”
     “On this interpretation of the Hobbs Act, petitioner David Anthony Taylor’s convictions cannot stand,” Thomas said. “The Government cites no evidence that Taylor actually obstructed, delayed, or affected interstate commerce when he committed the two intrastate robberies here.
     “The Government did not prove that Taylor affected any channel of interstate commerce, instrumentality of commerce, or person or thing in interstate commerce,” the justice continued. “Nor did the Government prove that Taylor affected an actual commercial transaction—let alone an interstate commercial transaction. At most, the Government proved instead that Taylor robbed two drug dealers in their homes in Virginia; that the marijuana that Taylor expected to (but did not) find in these robberies might possibly at some point have crossed state lines; and that Taylor expected to find large amounts of marijuana.
     “Under the principles set forth above, that is not sufficient to bring Taylor’s robberies within the Hobbs Act’s reach,” Thomas said.

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