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Taylor v. U.S.: Robbery, Weed, Commerce, and Confusion

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 25, 2016 12:57 PM

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in the case of Taylor v. United States, a case involving the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act. The Hobbs Act makes robbery and extortion a federal crime, should those acts affect commerce. In this case, David Taylor, a member of Virginia's "Southwest Goonz" gang, was convicted under the Hobbs Act for robbing drug dealers of their marijuana. But, Taylor argues, the government never proved that his robbery affected interstate commerce since all that weed was Virginia-grown.

The arguments were, fittingly perhaps, a bit ... odd.

Is Robbery an Economic Enterprise?

The question presented in Taylor v. U.S. is whether the government is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that robbery or extortion affected interstate commerce. In Taylor's case, the defense was prohibited from introducing evidence suggesting that the stolen marijuana was Old Dominion weed, and therefore not part of interstate commerce. Taylor also argued, on appeal, that the state failed to show evidence that small, stolen items like cell phones or even the drug dealers themselves had any connection to commerce at all.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Taylor's arguments. Instate weed was found to effect interstate commerce under the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich. Further, all drug dealing, according to the Fourth, "is a commercial enterprise" that "plainly is both economic and interstate."

But the court also went further, stating that there was no need to introduce particularized evidence to prove the commerce element of a Hobbs Act violation, putting it in conflict with rulings from the Second and Seventh Circuits.

Are We All Stoned?

If that's a pretty straight forward question -- whether the government must factually prove the commerce element of the crime -- the oral arguments evinced a fair amount of confusion. As Rory Little at SCOTUSblog notes, Taylor's attorney "seemed unable to separate an argument that the government had not proved an 'effect' on commerce from an argument that the government had not proved that the marijuana at issue was 'interstate.'" That lead to confusion over what position Taylor was even taking -- whether a commercial effect alone must be shown, or an interstate one.

But Taylor's argument wasn't the only curious point. Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg noted that it was "very odd" that Taylor was charged with a federal crime for robbing approximately $40. Chief Justice Roberts noted that one of Taylor's accomplices received a long sentence for such a small crime, leading to this humorous exchange:

Chief Justice Roberts: The tagalong, he got 20 years...

Justice Kennedy: Actually, I think [he] got 21, my chambers was telling me. You might check that.

Chief Justice Roberts: A year's a year.

Justice Kennedy: Which is, to me, one -- one year too many, but whatever.

Finally, the oral arguments ended with Taylor's lawyer using his reserve time to ask if there were "any questions?" There were not, but that hardly means the Court's confusion over this case has been cleared up.

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