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Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act (1946)

Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act (1946)

Barry L. Johnson


Excerpt from the Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act

Whoever in any way obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires to do so ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.


The Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act of 1946 (P.L. 79486, 60 Stat. 420), passed as an amendment to the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934, was part of Congress's efforts to combat labor racketeering and the activities of organized crime. Like its predecessor, the Hobbs Act prescribes heavy criminal penalties for acts of robbery or extortion that affect interstate commerce. The courts have interpreted the Hobbs Act broadly, requiring only a minimal effect on interstate commerce to justify the exercise of federal jurisdiction, and interpreting the concept of extortion to cover receipt of bribes by public officials. As a result, the Hobbs Act has been used as the basis for federal prosecutions in situations not apparently contemplated by Congress in 1946, including intrastate robberies and public corruption.

JUDICIAL REVIEW AND CONGRESSIONAL RESPONSE

The Hobbs Act was passed in direct response to the United States Supreme Court's 1942 decision in United States v. Teamsters Local 807, a case involving prosecution of members of a New York City truck drivers union. Prosecutors accused union members of violating the Anti-Racketeering Act by using threats of force to obtain payments from out-of-town trucking companies in return for permission for their trucks to enter the city. The evidence showed that union members' assistance was not requested by the out-of-town truckers, and that in many cases no actual work was performed by union members in exchange for the payments. The prosecution contended that the union activity was a classic labor extortion racket. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the union activities were not illegal under the Anti-Racketeering Act because the act exempted wage payments to employees from coverage by that law. The Court viewed as wages the payments that the truckers' union was demanding.

With this ruling, the Court had created a loophole in the law. Shortly after the Teamsters Local 807 decision, members of Congress introduced several bills designed to eliminate that loophole. One of these bills, introduced by Representative Samuel F. Hobbs (D-Alabama), ultimately was enacted in 1946. According to one congressman, the Hobbs bill was "made necessary by the amazing decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the United States against Teamsters' Union 807 [which] practically nullified the anti-racketeering bill of 1934" (91 Congressional Record 11900, remarks of Congressman Hancock).

A key provision of the Hobbs Act eliminated the wage exception that had been the basis for the Court's decision in Teamsters Local 807. Another provision deleted language in the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934 that had instructed courts not to interpret that statute in a way that would "impair, diminish, or in any manner affect the rights of bona-fide labor organizations in lawfully carrying out" their legitimate objectives. Representative Hobbs explained that this language was eliminated so that courts could not use it to resurrect the Teamsters Local 807 decision.

The major controversy over the Hobbs Act involved complaints by its opponents that it was antilabor. These opponents felt that the act could be used to prosecute strikers, frustrating legitimate activities of organized labor. Supporters of the bill insisted that it did not apply to legitimate labor activity, including strike activity that led to violence. In its 1973 decision in United States v. Enmons, the Supreme Court emphasized that the Hobbs Act prohibited only personal payoffs, or "wages" for unwanted or fictitious labor services. Thus in Enmons the Court held that violent strike activity by members of an electrical union seeking higher wages and benefits from a utility company did not violate the Hobbs Act.

EXTENDING THE ACT

For many years, prosecutions under the Hobbs Act involved the activities of organized crime and labor racketeering. However, judges have been aggressive in interpreting the act's language to apply to a broader range of actions. These judicial opinions have permitted federal prosecutors to apply the act to ordinary robberies and corruption by state and local public officials. The courts have, for example, interpreted certain language in the Hobbs Act as evidence that Congress intended for the statute to reach to the outer limit of Congress's constitutional authority to regulate commerce. As a result, courts have upheld use of the Hobbs Act even where there is no direct and immediate obstruction of the movement of goods in interstate commerce. This permits federal prosecution for simple robberies of businesses. These crimes have traditionally been prosecuted under state law. But courts have held that these crimes also fall under the federal Hobbs Act, because such robberies will have at least some minimal effect on customer traffic or on the businesses' purchases of goods from out-of-state suppliers. This extension of the reach of federal criminal law into areas traditionally policed by the states has been controversial.

Also controversial has been the use of the Hobbs Act in corruption cases against state and local public officials. The legislative history of the Hobbs Act shows no intent on the part of Congress to apply this law to corrupt demands by state or local officials for the payment of bribes. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors have successfully argued that such activities do constitute extortion, a crime covered by the Hobbs Act.

Labor racketeering activity has declined over the years, and the concerns that motivated Congress to pass the Hobbs Act have lessened in importance. In the 1970s and 1980s other federal laws were passed to combat organized crime (including the Organized Crime Control Act, or RICO, of 1970 and anti-money laundering provisions).Yet the Hobbs Act continues to be a vital and controversial tool for federal prosecutors.

See also: Bribery Act; Federal Blackmail Statute; Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lindgren, James. "The Elusive Distinction Between Bribery and Extortion: From the Common Law to the Hobbs Act." 35 UCLA Law Review 815 (1988).

Ruff, Charles F.C. "Federal Prosecution of Local Corruption: A Case Study in the Making of Law Enforcement Policy." 65 Georgetown Law Journal 1171 (1977).

Whitaker, Charles N. "Federal Prosecution of State and Local Bribery: Inappropriate Tools and the Need for a Structured Approach." 78 Virginia Law Review 1617 (1992).

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