Sunday, September 23, 2007

Government Has No Evidence; Court Deems It Sufficient

United States v. Parkes, No. 05-1486-cr (2d Cir. August 15, 2007) (Jacobs, McLaughlin, Calabresi, CJJ).

In a sterling example of the alchemy of result-oriented jurisprudence, here the court finds sufficient evidence of an effect on interstate commerce, even though there was none.

Otis Parkes and two others planned and carried out 2003 robbery attempt in the apartment of a drug dealer. Their target was marijuana and marijuana proceeds that the dealer kept hidden in his closet. During the robbery, one of the co-conspirators shot and killed the drug dealer. Parkes went to trial on a Hobbs Act robbery conspiracy charge under 18 U.S.C. § 1951, along with other, related charges, including murder in furtherance of a crime of violence, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(j). He received a life sentence.

The government had taken the position (a typical SDNY overreach) that it did not have to prove any effect on interstate commerce and that, as long as it proved that the target of the robbery was drugs or proceeds this element was satisfied. At the charge conference, Judge Kaplan disagreed, but permitted the government to reopen and call an “expert,” who testified that marijuana is “almost exclusively” trucked into the United States from Mexico, and that “very little” is grown in New York. He conceded that he did not know the origin of the marijuana found in this case and that marijuana can be, and is, grown in New York State.

On appeal, the Circuit reached two significant, albeit contradictory conclusions. It first held that, in a Hobbs Act prosecution, the government must, indeed, prove an effect on interstate commerce, rejecting the government’s (renewed) argument that a robbery involving drugs or proceeds affects commerce as a matter of law. This is significant because, to get there, it had to conduct what is calls a “mini-en banc” to undo United States v. Fabian, 312 F.3d 550 (2d Cir. 2002). There, the court had held that, for the loan sharking portions of the Hobbs Act, drug proceeds affect commerce as a matter of law. Fabian had imported the Congressional findings under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 801, et. seq., that all drug trafficking affected commerce to the Hobbs Act. Here, the Circuit did an about-face, relying, of all things, on Booker, which of course has nothing to do with commerce, to conclude that Fabian is “no longer good law.”

So far, so good for Mr. Parkes. Unfortunately, the court then concluded that the non-evidence introduced by the government was sufficient, because “a reasonable juror, hearing [it] could have found that the attempted robbery of ... marijuana or proceeds would have affected interstate commerce in any way or degree.”

The court rejected all of Parkes’ other claims, as well, but remanded the case for resentencing under Booker.

Comment: This is a ridiculous case. On the one hand, it requires the government to prove an effect on interstate commerce in Hobbs Act cases involving drugs or proceeds. But on the other hand, it completely excuses the government’s failure to do so.

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