Whether the Hobbs Act, which allows for federal prosecution of extortion and robbery that impedes the flow of interstate commerce, has been used unconstitutionally to prosecute extremely minor crimes that have a miniscule effect on interstate commerce.
Rajah Baylor was a young man that decided to rob a pizzeria in Ohio at gunpoint, making off with $538 in cash. He was later apprehended. Rather than being charged for armed robbery in in state criminal court, Baylor was charged in federal court for violation of the Hobbs Act, an anti-racketeering law intended to allow federal prosecution of extortion and robbery that impedes the flow of commerce across state lines. He was convicted and sentenced to 140 months of imprisonment.
Certain that his theft of $538 had a de minimis effect on interstate commerce, Baylor appealed his conviction to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the extraordinarily minor effect of his theft on interstate commerce does not constitute grounds to charge him under the Hobbs Act. Furthermore, Baylor argues that even if the de minimis effect of his theft is grounds for being charged under the Hobbs Act, the government failed to show that his theft had such an effect on interstate commerce.
The Court Below
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio was the first to hear the case. The court ruled that Mr. Baylor’s armed robbery of a pizzeria could be prosecuted under the Hobbs Act. He was subsequently convicted of said armed robbery in a jury trial and sentenced to 140 months of imprisonment. See opinion below:
United States v. Baylor, 2006 WL 2899940 (N.D. Ohio, 2006)
Mr. Baylor decided to appeal his conviction contending that the de minimis effect the robbery he committed had on interstate commerce did not suffice to be charged under the Hobbs Act. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the United States because prior Court precedent holds that a de minimis effect on commerce is sufficient for Hobbs Act prosecution. See opinion below:
United States v. Baylor, 517 F.3d 899 (6th Cir., 2008)
Baylor then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court denied certiorari without comment. See opinion below:
Baylor v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 2982 (U.S., 2008)
Question before the Court
Whether use of the Hobbs Act to prosecute local robberies that have only a de minimis effect on interstate commerce is consistent with the Commerce Clause, congressional intent, and constitutional clear-statement rules.
CCJ filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Baylor
The Court needs to draw a sensible and constitutional line between the power of states to punish violent crime and Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. The decision of the lower court threatens to demolish any real limitation on the Commerce Clause by treating local robberies not as violent crime but as interstate commerce. Article I of the Constitution lists the powers “herein granted” to Congress, including the commerce power at issue in this case: “Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce … among the several states.” The Tenth Amendment, by expressly reserving to the States and the people all powers the Constitution had not delegated to the federal government, further confirms that Congress’s powers are exclusive and limited, rather than illustrative and broad. The interpretation of every enumerated power in the Constitution must be consistent with this larger design. Indeed, an interpretation that amounts to a grant of plenary power to the Federal Government in an area where limited power was intended cannot be correct.
The Sixth Circuit is incorrect for several reasons in reaching its decision. First, it failed to consider whether local robbery is violent crime, properly controlled by the states, or whether it is economic activity, which may fall within the federal interstate commerce power. Second, its decision is contrary to both congressional intent and constitutional rules designed to protect federalism. In short, Baylor’s robbery was a local crime falling within the jurisdiction of state power, not federal power. The pizzeria’s merely buying certain ingredients from other states does not satisfy the de minimus requirement for federal jurisdiction, nor does the de minimus standard itself appropriately divide legitimate state law enforcement power from Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.
The decision below threatens to eliminate any meaningful limit on the commerce power by treating local robberies not as violent crime but as interstate commerce. Article I of the Constitution indeed grants to Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, but an individual robbery does not affect interstate commerce, and the nature of the union and the 10th Amendment reserve unenumerated powers to the states and the people. The Court has previously emphasized that there are limits to what constitutes “interstate commerce,” especially those activities that have “nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms.” The Court already rejected the argument in United States v. Lopez (1995) that the mere possession of a firearm on school property affected interstate commerce. Treating the robbery of a pizza shop as interstate commerce based on where sauce and mozzarella are made makes no more sense than treating gun possession as interstate commerce based on where iron ore is mined.
Next, the government is applying the Hobbs Act too broadly. The purpose of the law was to combat racketeering in labor-management disputes by targeting extortion and robbery that was impeding the flow of commerce across state lines, not to punish local robberies because some of the restaurant ingredients came from out-of-state. The legislative history confirms that Congress was concerned with protecting against relatively “direct obstruction of the actual movement of goods in interstate commerce, and did not contemplate its application to robberies of local retail stores.” Further, the expansive application of the Hobbs Act is also contrary to constitutional clear-statement rules: that unless Congress conveys its purpose clearly, it cannot be assumed that Congress was meaning to disrupt the sensitive relation between federal and state criminal jurisdiction. When competing, questionable constructions of statutes present themselves, the guiding principle is that jurists should adopt the construction that avoids grave and doubtful constitutional questions. Instead, federal courts are using the erroneous de minimus standard when applying the Hobbs Act to fish for a federal factor in what otherwise have been local crimes punishable under state laws.
The final decision-maker for this case ultimately became the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals because the Supreme Court decided not to take the case. The Sixth Circuit ruled against CCJ’s position, holding that a “de minimis effect on interstate commerce was constitutionally sufficient to satisfy jurisdictional requirement of Hobbs Act, and evidence that robbed pizzeria received its ingredients from various states was sufficient to satisfy requirement.” Essentially, the court ruled that the theft of a pizzeria is prosecutable in federal court because the ingredients to make pizzas came from across state lines.