410 U.S. 396 (1973), 71-1193, United States v. Enmons

Docket Nº:No. 71-1193
Citation:410 U.S. 396, 93 S.Ct. 1007, 35 L.Ed.2d 379
Party Name:United States v. Enmons
Case Date:February 22, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 396

410 U.S. 396 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1007, 35 L.Ed.2d 379

United States



No. 71-1193

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 22, 1973

Argued December 4, 1972




The Hobbs Act, which makes it a federal crime to obstruct interstate commerce by robbery or extortion, does not reach the use of violence (which is readily punishable under state law) to achieve legitimate union objectives, such as higher wages in return for genuine services that the employer seeks. Pp. 399-411.

335 F.Supp. 641, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 412. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 413.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

A one-count indictment was returned in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

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charging the appellees with a violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951. In pertinent part, that Act provides:

(a) Whoever in any way or degree obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do, or commits or threatens physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

"Extortion" is defined in the Act, as "the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear. . . ." 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2).

At the time of the alleged conspiracy, the employees of the Gulf States Utilities Company were out on strike. The appellees are members and officials of labor unions that were seeking a new collective bargaining agreement with that company. The indictment charged that the appellees and two named coconspirators conspired to obstruct commerce, and that as part of that conspiracy,

would obtain the property of the Gulf States Utilities Company in the form of wages and other things of value with the consent of the Gulf States Utilities Company . . such consent to be induced by the wrongful use of actual force, violence and fear of economic injury by [the appellees] and coconspirators, in that [the appellees] and the coconspirators did commit acts of physical violence and destruction against property owned by the Gulf States Utilities Company in order to force said

Page 398

Company to agree to a contract with Local 2286 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers calling for higher wages and other monetary benefits.

Five specific acts of violence were charged to have been committed in furtherance of the conspiracy -- firing high-powered rifles at three Company transformers, draining the oil from a Company transformer, and blowing up a transformer substation owned by the Company. In short, the indictment charged that the appellees had conspired to use and did in fact, use violence to obtain for the striking employees higher wages and other employment benefits from the Company.

The District Court granted the appellees' motion to dismiss the indictment for [93 S.Ct. 1009] failure to state an offense under the Hobbs Act. 335 F.Supp. 641. The court noted that the appellees were union members on strike against their employer, Gulf States, and that both the strike and its objective of higher wages were legal. The court expressed the view that, if "the wages sought by violent acts are wages to be paid for unneeded or unwanted services, or for no services at all," then that violence would constitute extortion within the meaning of the Hobbs Act. Id. at 645. But in this case, by contrast, the court noted that the indictment alleged the use of force to obtain legitimate union objectives:

The union had a right to disrupt the business of the employer by lawfully striking for higher wages. Acts of violence occurring during a lawful strike and resulting in damage to persons or property are undoubtedly punishable under State law. To punish persons for such acts of violence was not the purpose of the Hobbs Act.

Id. at 646. The court found "no case where a court has gone so far as to hold the type of activity involved here to be a violation of the Hobbs Act." Id. at 645.

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We noted probable jurisdiction of the Government's appeal, 406 U.S. 916,1 to determine whether the Hobbs Act proscribes violence committed during a lawful strike for the purpose of inducing an employer's agreement to legitimate collective bargaining demands.


The Government contends that the statutory language unambiguously and without qualification proscribes interference with commerce by "extortion," and that, in terms of the statute, "extortion" is "the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear. . . ." Wages are the "property" of the employer, the argument continues, and strike violence to obtain such "property" thus falls within the literal proscription of the Act. But the language of the statute is hardly as clear as the Government would make it out to be. Its interpretation of the Act slights the wording of the statute that proscribes obtaining property only by the "wrongful" use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear. The term "wrongful," which on the face of the statute modifies the use of each of the enumerated means of obtaining property -- actual or threatened force, violence, or fear2 -- would be superfluous if it only served to describe the means used. For it would be redundant to speak of "wrongful violence" or "wrongful force," since,

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as the Government acknowledges, any violence or force to obtain property is "wrongful."3 Rather, "wrongful" has meaning in the Act only if it limits the statute's coverage to those instances where the obtaining of the property would itself be [93 S.Ct. 1010] "wrongful" because the alleged extortionist has no lawful claim to that property.

Construed in this fashion, the Hobbs Act has properly been held to reach instances where union officials threatened force or violence against an employer in order to obtain personal payoffs,4 and where unions used the proscribed means to exact "wage" payments from employers in return for "imposed, unwanted, superfluous and fictitious services" of workers.5 For in those situations, the employer's property has been misappropriated. But the literal language of the statute will not bear the Government's semantic argument that the Hobbs Act reaches the use of violence to achieve legitimate union objectives, such as higher wages in return for genuine services which the employer seeks. In that type of case, there has been no "wrongful" taking of the employer's property; he has paid for the services he bargained for, and the workers receive the wages to which they are entitled in compensation for their services.

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The legislative framework of the Hobbs Act dispels any ambiguity in the wording of the statute and makes it clear that the Act does not apply to the use of force to achieve legitimate labor ends. The predecessor of the Hobbs Act, § 2 of the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 979,6 proscribed, in connection with interstate commerce, the exaction of valuable consideration by force, violence, or coercion, "not including, however, the payment of wages by a bona-fide employer to a bonafide employee. . . ."7 In United States v. Local 807, 315 U.S. 521, the Court held that this exception covered

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the members of a New York City truck drivers union who, by violence or threats, exacted payments for themselves from out-of-town truckers in return for the unwanted and superfluous service of driving out-of-town trucks to and from the city. The New York City teamsters would lie in wait for the out-of-town trucks, and then demand payment from the owners and drivers in return [93 S.Ct. 1011] for allowing the trucks to proceed into the city. The teamsters sometimes drove the arriving trucks into the city, but, in other instances, the out-of-town truckers paid the fees but rejected the teamsters' services and drove the trucks themselves. In several cases, there was evidence that, having exacted their fees, the city drivers disappeared without offering to perform any services at all. Id. at 526. See also id. at 539 (Stone, C.J., dissenting). The Court held that the activities of the city teamsters were included within the wage exception to the Anti-Racketeering Act although what work they performed was unneeded and unwanted, and although, in some cases, their work was rejected.

Congressional disapproval of this decision was swift. Several bills8 were introduced with the narrow purpose of correcting the result in the Local 807 case.9 H.R. 32, which became the Hobbs Act, 60 Stat. 420, eliminated the wage exception that had been the basis for the Local 807 decision.10 But, as frequently emphasized

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on the floor of the House, the limited effect of the bill was to shut off the possibility opened up by the Local 807 case, that union members could use their protected status to exact payments from employers for imposed, unwanted, and superfluous services. As Congressman Hancock explained:

This bill is designed simply to prevent both union members and nonunion people from making use of robbery and extortion under the guise of obtaining wages in the obstruction of interstate commerce. That is all it does.

* * * *

[T]his bill is made necessary by the amazing decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the United States against Teamsters' Union 807 3 years ago. That decision...

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