WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments on whether robbing a drug dealer inherently hurts the dealer, thus violating commerce laws, or whether prosecutors must prove actual harm in a case involving the theft of a single marijuana cigarette, three cell phones, $40 and some jewelry.
David Taylor was a member of the “Southwest Goonz”– a band of robbers that focused on drug dealers in Roanoke, Virginia. In 2012, Taylor was convicted of robbery under the 1946 Hobbs Act and sentenced to 28 years in prison, three years supervised release and $1,000 fine.
He appealed the conviction on the grounds that the government did not provide sufficient evidence that the robberies affected interstate commerce.
The appeals court ruled that drug dealing does affect interstate commerce so the government only needed to prove that Taylor “depleted or attempted to deplete the assets of such an operation.”
But Taylor’s lawyer told the Supreme Court that the government had not provided sufficient evidence that Taylor’s robbery of a drug dealer had a substantial effect on commerce under the Hobbs Act, which has a commerce clause that criminalizes any robbery or attempted robbery that “in any way or degree obstructs, delays or affects commerce.”
The lawyer argued that prosecutors needed to show that a specific business was harmed by the theft of one joint of marijuana.
“In the robbery of a drug dealer, it still requires an independent finding about whether or not there was this effect on commerce,” said Dennis Jones, Taylor’s lawyer. “And that’s what’s lacking here.”
But Anthony Yang, assistant to the solicitor general, said it is enough to show that a defendant targeted a drug dealer in general because “all drug dealing necessary affects interstate commerce,” according to court documents.
“If you find that there was a robbery targeting the inventory, the marijuana of a drug dealer engaged in the trade of that marijuana, then there’s a very direct and I think undeniable effect,” he said.
Taylor’s attorney also argued that the marijuana was grown in-state and it could not be proven that it was to cross state borders and affect interstate commerce, meaning the federal government had no jurisdiction.
But Associate Justice Elena Kagan brought up the precedent set in Gonzalez v. Raich, which upheld federal regulation of all marijuana production and distribution. The commerce clause of the Hobbs Act combined with the Raich ruling would make the distinction between interstate and intrastate drug dealing pointless.
“Now for sure the United States has jurisdiction over interstate commerce, but under Raich it also has jurisdiction over intrastate drug trafficking,” Kagan said. “And so if you just sort of put the pieces of the statutes together, it seems to make it completely irrelevant whether the drug trafficking was intrastate or interstate, because in either case, it was commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction.”
A decision is expected in the spring.