Supreme Court issues decisions on Hobbs Act robbery of intrastate drug dealers, bribery of public officials, and RICO
The U.S. Supreme Court, in finishing up its term, issued three decisions in late June of interest to public defenders.
Hobbs Act robbery of intrastate marijuana dealers
In Taylor v. United States, decided June 20, the Court held that the Hobbs Act can be used to convict defendants who rob intrastate marijuana dealers of drugs or proceeds, because this affects interstate commerce.
The Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1951(a), makes it a crime to affect commerce by robbery.
The issue in Taylor was “what the Government must prove to satisfy the Hobbs Act’s commerce element when a defendant commits a robbery that targets a marijuana dealer’s drugs or drug proceeds.”
David Taylor was convicted for participating in two home invasion robberies that targeted marijuana dealers in Roanoke, Virginia. He claimed the evidence was insufficient to prove the commerce element of the Hobbs Act.
But in a 7-1 opinion, the Court disagreed.
In 2005, the Court held in Gonzales v. Raich that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate the national market for marijuana, including purely intrastate matters.
“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,” the Court said. “And since the Hobbs Act criminalizes robberies and attempted robberies that affect commerce … 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.”
Justice Thomas dissented on grounds that the opinion “extends our already expansive, flawed commerce-power precedents.” He said that constitutional limitations prohibit the Hobbs Act from being applied to intrastate commerce or activity.
Bribery of public officials
In McDonnell v. United States, decided June 27, the Court unanimously held that the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 201, must be interpreted in a limited fashion to avoid constitutional concerns of overbreadth.
Under the statute, a government official must take an “official act” in exchange for something of value, but the Court ruled that an “official act” does not include merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting another government official to talk about an issue or gather information.
Since these are routine matters that all government officials do and constituents request, the government official must do “something more” to violate the bribery statute, the Court said. The official must make, or agree to make, a decision or take an action “on” a question or matter – similar to deciding a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination.
A public official can also violate the statute by making a decision or taking an action that would initiate a government action, by pressuring another government official to perform an “official act,” or by giving advice to another public official knowing that the advice will form the basis for an “official act,” the Court said.
But the statute must be limited to allow elected government to function. “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” the Court explained. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns.”
The prosecution’s “boundless” interpretation of the statute would cause officials to “wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance,” the Court said. “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption.”
RICO can apply to acts outside U.S.
In RJR Nabisco v. European Community, decided June 20, the Court ruled that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) can be applied to conduct that occurs outside the U.S., but that a private plaintiff seeking to bring a RICO claim must prove that an injury occurred domestically.
The European Union and 26 of its member states brought a private RICO action against RJR Nabisco for conducting an alleged global money-laundering scheme.
The issues at the Supreme Court were, first, whether RICO applies to events occurring outside the U.S., and, second, whether RICO applies to injuries outside the U.S..
“Absent clearly expressed congressional intent to the contrary, federal laws will be construed to have only domestic application,” the Court said.
With regard to the first question, the Court held that “the presumption against extraterritoriality has been rebutted – but only with respect to certain applications of the statute.” For example, the Court noted that one of RICO’s predicate offenses prohibits engaging in monetary transactions in criminally derived property when “the defendant is a United States person” and the offenses “tak[e] place outside the United States.” Some other predicate offenses also expressly provide for extraterritorial application.
But “[t]he inclusion of some extraterritorial predicates does not mean that all RICO predicates extend to foreign conduct,” the Court said. “A violation of [RICO] may be based on a pattern of racketeering that includes predicate offenses committed abroad, provided that each of those offenses violates a predicate statute that is itself extraterritorial.”
With regard to the second question, the Court held that “[n]othing in [RICO] provides a clear indication that Congress intended to create a private right of action for injuries suffered outside of the United States.”
“[P]roviding a private civil remedy for foreign conduct creates a potential for international friction beyond that presented by merely applying U.S. substantive law to that foreign conduct,” the Court said.
“A private RICO plaintiff therefore must allege and prove a domestic injury to its business or property,” the Court concluded.