Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Hobbs Leviathan: The Dangerous Breadth of the Hobbs Act and Other Corruption Statutes

Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Hobbs Leviathan: The Dangerous Breadth of the Hobbs Act and Other Corruption Statutes

Article excerpt

"[T]he more corrupt the State, the greater the number of its laws." (1)


On March 2, 1942 the Supreme Court infamously upheld the Second Circuit's reversals of extortion convictions for the Local 807 branch of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in United States v. Local 807 International Brotherhood of Teamsters. (2) For years, Local 807 routinely stopped out-of-state non-union trucks carrying large quantifies of merchandise as they entered New York City and demanded, sometimes violently, (3) that the drivers pay regular union-fees and permit union-members to drive and unload the trucks. (4) In affirming the reversals, the Court focused on an exception in the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934. (5) That Act prohibited:

Any person who, in connection with or in relation to any act in any way or in any degree affecting trade or commerce or any article or commodity moving or about to move in trade or commerce--

(a) Obtains or attempts to obtain, by the use of or attempt to use or threat to use force, violence, or coercion, the payment of money or other valuable considerations, or the purchase or rental of property or protective services, not including, however, the payment of wages by a bona fide employer to a bona fide employee,, or

(b) Obtains the property of another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right.... (6)

Reasoning that Congress intended to exempt militant labor-activity from the statute's reach, the Court held that an "outsider who 'attempts' unsuccessfully by violent means to achieve the status of an employee and to secure wages for services falls within the exception." (7)

Local 807 set the stage for the enactment of the Hobbs Act, the federal government's comprehensive extortion statute. The case was the first high-profile prosecution under the 1934 Act, and it failed. (8) Congress reacted promptly. In April of 1943 the House passed an amendment to the Anti-Racketeering Act, but the measure died in the Senate. (9) Undeterred, the House passed another bill in 1945. Representative Hancock of New York stated that the bill's purpose was to counteract the Supreme Court's decision in Local 807, because the ruling "legaliz[ed] in certain labor disputes the use of robbery and extortion." (10) Representative Eberharter of Pennsylvania asked the bill's proponents if the amendment would change the federal definition of extortion. (11) The bill's opponents worried that without a special exception for militant labor-activity, (12) the definition of extortion in the amendment was "so broad as to permit one to drive a coach and six through" it. (13) In reality, Congress adopted essentially the same extortion definition as the one contained in section (b) of the 1934 Act. Yet looking back nearly sixty-five years, trepidations about the statute's breadth have proven remarkably prescient, albeit not in the context of organized labor. The amended version of the federal anti-racketeering law, the Hobbs Act, prohibits interference with interstate commerce by robbery or extortion. (14) The Act defines extortion as:

   [T]he obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced
   by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear,
   or under color of official right. (15)

Violators face up to twenty years of imprisonment. The problems of breadth did not arise from extortion by force, violence, or fear, but instead from the clause that was an afterthought. Under its current reading, extortion "under color of official right" affords prosecutors a wide range of discretion. Danger exists in this discretion. In broad terms, when Congress targets criminal activity--whether it is a corrupt labor union or a dirty politician--it often creates over-inclusive and overlapping statutes. (16) For instance, an extortion victim could also be punished for bribery. (17) Official right extortion (18) also threatens to criminalize blameless conduct in the perpetually gray area of political contributions. …

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