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SCOTUS: Drug robbery automatically satisfies commerce clause element of Hobbs Act proseuction

Taylor v. United States, USSC No. 14-6166, 2016 WL 3369420, 579 U.S. ___ (June 20, 2016), affirming United States v. Taylor, 754 F.3d 217 (4th Cir. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

In a decision that invalidates Seventh Circuit precedent, the Supreme Court holds that to obtain a conviction under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, for the robbery or attempted robbery of a drug dealer, the Government need not show that the drugs that a defendant stole or attempted to steal either traveled or were destined for transport across state lines; instead, it is enough that a defendant knowingly stole or attempted to steal drugs or drug proceeds because, as a matter of law, the market for illegal drugs is “commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction” for purposes of the Hobbs Act.

In defending against charges of attempting to rob marijuana dealers of their drugs and drug money, Taylor argued that robbing drug dealers of marijuana or proceeds of marijuana grown in the state where the robbery occurred didn’t satisfy the interstate commerce element. This argument fails given the Court’s precedent about illegal drugs and interstate commerce:

We held in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005), 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. 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,” § 1951(b)(3), 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.

(Slip op. at 1-2). This is true even if any actual or threatened effect on commerce in a particular case is minimal. Perez v. United States, 402 U.S. 146, 154 (1971) (“Where the class of activities is regulated and that class is within the reach of federal power, the courts have no power ‘to excise, as trivial, individual instances’ of the class” (emphasis deleted)). (Slip op. at 5-6, 8).

By rejecting Taylor’s argument the Court invalidates Seventh Circuit precedent holding that the Government must show either (1) that the particular drugs in question originated or were destined for sale out of State or (2) that the particular drug dealer targeted in the robbery operated an interstate business. United States v. Peterson, 236 F.3d 848, 855 (7th Cir. 2001). (Slip op. at 7).

Justice Thomas dissents. As he did in Raich, Thomas rejects the Court’s “substantial effects” approach to commerce clause power because it “is tantamount to abandoning any limits on Congress’ commerce power” and “effectively gives Congress a police power” it does not have. (Dissent at 9-10). Applying the blanket substantial-effects rationale of Raich also effectively relieves the Government of its burden to prove the interstate commerce element. (Dissent at 10-15). And he objects to application of the doctrine on a textual level: While Article I, section 8, clause 3, authorizes Congress to regulate “Commerce . . . among the several States,” and at the founding, ‘”commerce” consisted of selling, buying, and bartering, as well as transporting for these purposes; robbery is not “Commerce” because “[r]obbery is not buying, it is not selling, and it cannot plausibly be described as a commercial transaction….” (Dissent at 3).

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