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Can Hobbs Act charges lead to mandatory minimum sentences?

 

Can Hobbs Act Charges Lead to Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

The Hobbs Act, which prohibits robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce, is a frequently used federal criminal statute. A common question is whether a Hobbs Act conviction can trigger mandatory minimum sentences. The answer depends on the specific circumstances of the case.

Overview of the Hobbs Act

Enacted in 1946, the Hobbs Act (18 U.S.C. § 1951) prohibits actual or attempted robbery or extortion that affects interstate or foreign commerce. The Act covers not only the actual taking of property, but also obtaining property under “color of official right,” which essentially means through the abuse of one’s public office or position.

To be convicted under the Hobbs Act, the government must prove two elements: (1) the defendant induced a victim to part with property; (2) through the “wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence or fear, or under color of official right.” Additionally, the act must have at least a “de minimis” effect on interstate commerce, although this requirement is broadly interpreted.

The maximum sentence for a Hobbs Act violation is 20 years imprisonment. Fines and supervised release may also be imposed. Unlike some statutes, the Hobbs Act does not contain mandatory minimum sentences except in certain specific circumstances.

Mandatory Minimums Under 924(c)

The most common way for a Hobbs Act charge to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence is through a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Section 924(c) imposes mandatory additional penalties for using or carrying a firearm in relation to a “crime of violence.”

The mandatory minimums under 924(c) are:

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  • First conviction: 5 years
  • Second conviction: 25 years
  • Third conviction: Life imprisonment

These penalties must run consecutively (or “stack”) on top of any other sentence imposed, including for the predicate crime of violence itself. So a defendant convicted of both a Hobbs Act robbery and a 924(c) charge would face a minimum of 5 years consecutive to whatever sentence is imposed for the Hobbs Act violation.

Whether a Hobbs Act conviction qualifies as a “crime of violence” under 924(c) has been the subject of much litigation. In 2019, the Supreme Court held that Hobbs Act robbery constitutes a crime of violence. However, the status of Hobbs Act extortion as a crime of violence is less settled.

Mandatory Minimums for Brandishing or Discharging Firearm

Section 924(c) also contains enhanced mandatory minimums when the defendant brandishes or discharges a firearm in connection with a crime of violence:

  • Brandishing: 7 years
  • Discharging: 10 years

Like the 5-year mandatory minimum, these penalties must run consecutively to any other sentence.

Mandatory Minimums Under Certain Statutes

There are a few other federal statutes under which a Hobbs Act violation could also lead to mandatory minimum sentences. For example:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), the Armed Career Criminal Act, imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum on defendants with 3 prior “violent felony” convictions who are convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm. Some courts have held that Hobbs Act robbery qualifies as a violent felony under this statute.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c) contains a mandatory life sentence for certain defendants with two prior “serious violent felony” convictions who are convicted of a new “serious violent felony.” Hobbs Act robbery likely qualifies as a serious violent felony here as well.

However, it is relatively rare for these statutes to come into play in a Hobbs Act prosecution.

Sentencing Guidelines Enhancements

While not mandatory minimums, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines do contain several provisions under which a Hobbs Act violation may result in an enhanced recommended sentencing range:

  • Possession of a dangerous weapon adds 2 offense levels
  • Brandishing or discharging a firearm adds 3-7 levels depending on conduct
  • Bodily injury adds 2-6 levels depending on severity
  • Abduction of a person adds 4 levels
  • Loss greater than $20,000 adds enhancements on a sliding scale

Because the Guidelines are advisory, these enhancements do not automatically increase the defendant’s sentence. But they may lead to longer sentences within the statutory range if adopted by the court.

Defenses to Mandatory Minimums

For defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence in connection with a Hobbs Act charge, there are a few potential defenses to keep in mind:

  • Challenge the “crime of violence” status – Argue that the specific Hobbs Act violation does not qualify as a crime of violence under 924(c) or other statutes with mandatory minimums.
  • Challenge the firearm conviction – Contest that the defendant did not actually use, carry, brandish, or discharge a firearm under 924(c).
  • “Safety valve” provision – 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) eliminates mandatory minimums for certain non-violent first-time drug offenders. May apply in cases where Hobbs Act charge is related to drug trafficking.
  • Substantial assistance departure – Providing “substantial assistance” to the government in investigating or prosecuting others may warrant a sentence below an otherwise applicable mandatory minimum.
  • Constitutional arguments – Mandatory minimums may sometimes be challenged as cruel and unusual punishment or a violation of separation of powers.

However, mandatory minimum sentences are notoriously difficult to avoid. Having experienced defense counsel argue against their applicability is critical.

Takeaways

While the Hobbs Act itself does not contain mandatory minimum sentences, such sentences may come into play through:

  • A conviction under 924(c) for using a firearm in connection with a Hobbs Act robbery or extortion.
  • Application of other statutes such as 924(e) or 3559(c) in limited circumstances.
  • Sentencing Guidelines enhancements that increase the recommended sentencing range.

Defendants facing the prospect of a mandatory minimum sentence should explore defenses focused on the inapplicability of such sentences to their specific case. But in general, Hobbs Act charges should be taken very seriously given the potential sentencing implications.

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