Racketeering law from 1946 used against violent offenders.
Here's a quiz. See if you can pick which is the federal crime.
a) Bank robbery.
c) Robbing a McDonald's.
Would you believe, d) All of the above?
Officials in Minnesota and across the country are more frequently using the Hobbs Act, a federal law that prohibits the obstruction or delay of commerce, to pursue violent offenders who have robbed bars, coffee shops and even McDonald's restaurants.
The act was passed in 1946 to address organized crime and labor racketeering, said U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. Now, it has new life in a new way: getting career criminals who commit violent crimes off the streets for a longer time.
"We are not creatively using it. We are aggressively using it," he said.
Jones acknowledged that the law, which carries a 20-year prison term, could be applied to almost any robbery -- since it interferes with commerce. But local, state and federal officials are using it after analyzing the facts of the crime and the accused offender. Does the offender have a long criminal history? Was the crime in a public place that heightened fear and anxiety? Is public safety better served by bringing a longer federal prison term to bear?
"It is a tool for us to protect the community," said Bernard J. Zapor, special agent in charge of the St. Paul division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). "As offenders get away with more, the violence escalates. So there is a deterrent factor in going to federal prison outside Minnesota for longer sentences. When it's appropriate, we try to do these."
A 24-year-old Rochester man, Christian Aaron Alexander, was charged Aug. 25 in federal court with robbing three McDonald's over two years, in Winona, Byron and Rochester. In the most recent robbery, in Byron, a man approached a restaurant employee in the parking lot at 5 a.m., pointed a pistol at him and forced him and other employees back into the restaurant.
The man allegedly demanded their cash and cellphones and ordered them to open the safe. Investigators say more than $2,700 was stolen -- and more than $3,700 was stolen in the two other robberies.
Police went to Alexander's home, where they say they found cash on the floor of the back seat of his car and seized a gun, ammunition and clothing that matched what was worn by the robber. They also found a couple of McDonald's bags.
Twenty life sentences
One of the first robbery suspects prosecuted locally under the Hobbs Act was Carlos McAdory, the ringleader of a gang that robbed at least 18 bars in the Twin Cities area several years ago, officials say. He was sentenced in federal court to 20 life sentences after he was convicted on nine counts of robbery affecting interstate commerce and other crimes.
Use of the Hobbs Act picked up early last year as officials scrambled to stem a rise in violence in Minneapolis, Jones said.
Last December, federal prosecutors charged two armed career criminals with violating the Hobbs Act when they allegedly robbed a Dunn Bros coffee shop in the Uptown area of Minneapolis.
The act was used again to charge a felon for the November 2010 robbery of a White Bear Lake bar, during which a bar patron was shot in the leg. The man pleaded guilty in May.
Others have been charged under the act for carjacking a taxi, robbing a gas station, robbing liquor stores and robbing a convenience store.
"Some people you just can't reach unless you use the heavy hammer of federal prosecution," Jones said.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428