435 U.S. 371 (1978), 77-142, United States v. Culbert

Docket Nº:No. 77-142
Citation:435 U.S. 371, 98 S.Ct. 1112, 55 L.Ed.2d 349
Party Name:United States v. Culbert
Case Date:March 28, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 371

435 U.S. 371 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1112, 55 L.Ed.2d 349

United States



No. 77-142

United States Supreme Court

March 28, 1978

Argued January 11, 1978




Respondent was convicted under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (1976 ed.), of attempting to obtain money from federally insured bank by means of threats of violence to its president. The Curt of Appeals reversed, holding that the Government had failed to prove that respondent's conduct constituted "racketeering," which, in its view, was a necessary element of a Hobbs Act offense.

Held: The plain language and legislative history of the statute make clear that Congress did not intend to limit the statute's scope by reference to an undefined category [98 S.Ct. 1113] of conduct termed "racketeering," but rather that Congress intended to reach all conduct within the express terms of the statute. Pp. 373-380.

548 F.2d 1355, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except BRENNAN, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent was convicted of violating the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (1976 ed.), which provides in relevant part:

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

Page 372

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.

§ 1951(a). The question in this case is whether the Government not only had to establish that respondent violated the express terms of the Act, but also had to prove that his conduct constituted "racketeering."

The evidence at respondent's jury trial showed that he and an accomplice attempted to obtain $100,000 from a federally insured bank by means of threats of physical violence made to the bank's president. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with one judge dissenting, reversed the Hobbs Act conviction,1 holding that,

"although an activity may be within the literal language of the Hobbs Act, it must constitute `racketeering' to be within the perimeters of the Act."

548 F.2d 1355, 1357, quoting United States v. Yokley, 542 F.2d 300, 304 (CA6 1976). We granted certiorari, 434 U.S. 816 (1977),2 and we now reverse.

Page 373


Nothing on the face of the statute suggests a congressional intent to limit its coverage to persons who have engaged in "racketeering." To the contrary, the statutory language sweeps within it all persons who have "in any way or degree . . . affect[ed] commerce . . . by robbery or extortion." 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) (1976 ed.). These words do not lend themselves to restrictive interpretation; as we have recognized, they

manifest . . . a purpose to use all the constitutional power Congress has to punish interference with interstate commerce by extortion, robbery or physical violence,

Stirone v. United States, 361 U.S. 212, 215 (1960). The statute, moreover, carefully defines its key terms, such as "robbery," "extortion," and "commerce."3 Hence, the absence of any reference [98 S.Ct. 1114] to "racketeering" -- much less any definition of the word -- is strong evidence that Congress did not intend to make "racketeering" an element of a Hobbs Act violation.

Page 374

Respondent nevertheless argues that we should read a racketeering requirement into the statute. To do so, however, might create serious constitutional problems in view of the absence of any definition of racketeering in the statute. Neither respondent nor either of the two Courts of Appeals that have read this requirement into the statute has even attempted to provide a definition. Without such a definition, the statute might well violate "the first essential of due process of law": it would forbid

the doing of an act in terms so vague that [persons] of common intelligence [would] necessarily [have to] guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.

Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391 (1926); see, e.g., Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell, 425 U.S. 610, 620 (1976). But we need not concern ourselves with these potential constitutional difficulties because a construction that avoids them is virtually compelled by the language and structure of the statute.



Nothing in the legislative history supports the interpretation of the statute adopted by the Court of Appeals.4 The predecessor to the Hobbs Act, the Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934, ch. 569, 48 Stat. 979, was enacted, as its name implies, at a time when Congress was very concerned about racketeering activities. Despite these concerns, however, the Act, which was written in broad language similar to the language of the

Page 375

Hobbs Act, nowhere mentioned racketeering.5 This absence of the term is not surprising, since [98 S.Ct. 1115] the principal congressional committee working on the Act, known as the Copeland Committee, found that the term and the associated word "racket" had

for some time been used loosely to designate every conceivable sort of practice or activity which was either questionable, unmoral, fraudulent, or even disliked, whether criminal or not.

S.Rep. No. 1189, 75th Cong...

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