Last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Taylor v. United States. The issue raised by the petitioner, David Taylor, is whether the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, with case specific fact evidence, the interstate commerce element in a Hobbs Act prosecution of a defendant who robs a drug trafficker; or, alternatively, whether the government may simply rely on proof that the person robbed was dealing in drugs which is an inherent economic enterprise that satisfies, as a matter of law, the interstate commerce element set forth in the statute.

Taylor’s argument, therefore, is whether the Hobbs Act commerce element is viewed as a matter of law or fact, the government must nevertheless prove ̶ with case specific factual evidence in every Hobbs Act prosecution involving a robbery of a drug trafficker ̶ that the defendant’s conduct obstructed, delayed or affected interstate commerce. Although the issue may appear to be a fairly straightforward one, the Court’s decision could potentially have far reaching implications because scores of other criminal statutes explicitly require proof of an interstate commerce element as well.

The trial court in Taylor precluded the defendant from offering evidence that his robbery of a drug dealer of a small amount of marijuana grown within the state did not affect interstate commerce. The court reasoned that drug dealing affects commerce as a matter of law. After Taylor was convicted, he moved to set aside the verdict, arguing that the government had not presented sufficient evidence that his conduct—robbing a drug dealer of a marijuana cigarette—affected interstate commerce, as required by the Hobbs Act. The district court denied Taylor's motion and the Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction.  

In holding that drug dealing affects commerce as a matter of law, the Fourth Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s prior decision in Raich which held that Congress may regulate conduct under the Commerce Clause that has an “aggregate effect” on interstate commerce. In Raich, the Court found that the Commerce Clause’s authority includes the power to prohibit the local cultivation and personal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Thus, the Fourth Circuit in Taylor extended the Supreme Court’s aggregation principle to the Hobbs Act, concluding that drug trafficking in all of its forms is an economic enterprise conducted in interstate commerce, and that robbing someone engaged in that business also affects commerce. Thus, peering through the same lens employed by the Fourth Circuit, it appears that all a jury has to do to satisfy the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act is to find that the person robbed was a drug dealer.  

The Supreme Court evidently decided to take up the case to settle a circuit split on the issue. Contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, the Second and Seventh Circuits have required some case specific evidence of an effect on commerce beyond the targeting or robbery of a drug dealer for cash or drugs. Thus, the Second and Seventh Circuits have held the government’s feet to the fire, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt, with case specific fact evidence, that a defendant’s conduct had at least a de minimis effect on interstate commerce, as required under the clear language of the Hobbs Act.  

In my view, it is a fundamental principle in criminal law that a jury must find a defendant guilty on all elements of a crime, whether the elements be legal or factual; and here Congress specifically incorporated the interstate commerce element into the Hobbs Act by requiring proof that a defendant by robbery (or extortion) "obstruct[ed], delay[ed], or affect[ed] commerce, or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce." Congress, therefore, clearly intended to require that the government prove the interstate commerce element beyond a reasonable doubt in every prosecution brought under the Act. And that same intent was expressed by Congress in a myriad of other criminal statutes that stand to be affected by the Court’s decision in this case.

In listening to the transcript of the oral argument held February 23rd, however, the issue raised by Taylor seems at first glance to have been disposed of quite neatly by the Court. During questioning of Taylor’s counsel, Justices Kagan and Kennedy clearly stated that the government’s jurisdiction over intrastate marijuana dealing was decided previously by Raich and that its holding should be extended to the Hobbs Act. According to Justice Kennedy, the government should not have to prove a specific effect on commerce under the Hobbs Act in every case where goods robbed are moved in interstate commerce. Justice Kagan explained further that under Raich it is irrelevant whether drugs taken in a robbery are linked to intrastate or interstate commerce; that, by the terms of the Hobbs Act itself, “commerce” includes all “commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction;” and that, under Raich, the government therefore has jurisdiction over intrastate commerce in drugs.

However, during the government’s argument, the judicial tide that seemed to have overcome Taylor suddenly turned when the Court questioned the sufficiency of the trial court’s jury instructions, which the government’s counsel conceded could have been clearer. The Court also raised questions, and apparently some concern, in regard to the trial court’s ruling preventing Taylor from introducing evidence in his defense on the commerce issue, first voiced by Justice Ginsburg at the beginning of Taylor’s argument. Thus, the Justices unanimously recognized that Taylor possibly could have introduced evidence that the robbery victim was not a drug dealer or that he had grown the marijuana himself for personal use. In response, the government conceded that the jurisdictional element of the Hobbs Act would have been more difficult to prove under such circumstances.  Justice Kennedy pushed the government a bit further, asking whether a defendant can claim no jurisdiction where marijuana has been grown at home, and, likewise, whether a defendant has a right to introduce evidence on the commerce element, even assuming that its cultivation at home affects commerce within the meaning of the statute.  
Ultimately, this case presents the Court with the opportunity to clarify the meaning of the jurisdictional “commerce” element in the Hobbs Act, to define whether the element is one of law or fact, to address the sufficiency of the instructions given to the Taylor jury, and, last but not least, to tackle the question of whether a defendant in a Hobbs Act prosecution involving the robbery of drugs has the right to present a defense on the commerce element, and, if so, whether Taylor’s rights were prejudiced. As Justice Kennedy so appropriately summed things up:  Would the commerce element of the Hobbs Act be satisfied where a defendant robs a farmer of wheat grown simply for his personal consumption?