Hobbs Act Guilty Plea Yields Nine-and-a-half year Sentence

Robert A. Fiolka, 69, walked into Blue Stove Antiques in Fair Haven, New Jersey, in June 2012 with intentions of robbing the store. Wearing a mask and hat pulled down over his head he used a gun to instill fear in the mind of the owner. After successfully doing so he escaped with over $200,000 worth of jewelry and watches. He was apprehended in September and arrested on charges of robbery. What he didn’t count on was that shortly after being caught, the FBI was preparing a warrant for the use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence under a federal law known as the Hobbs Act.

In June he accepted a guilty plea in Trenton federal court and he was sentenced to just less than 10 years in federal prison yesterday. Judge Freda L. Wolfson presided over both the acceptance of the plea and the imposition of the sentence. The charges could have held the possibility of a term of life imprisonment.

The antiques store on River Road has been a preferred target of local burglars and has been plagued by them on numerous occasions in the past, according to Fair Haven Police Detective Stephen Schneider. Just this past January, well after the Fiolka heist, the police responded to an alarm at the store discovering that an individual had broken in through a window and robbed the store of upward of $10,000 worth of expensive watches. The police are now keeping a close watch on the property.

According to statements made in court and documents produced during his hearing, Mr. Fiolka entered the store early on the morning on June 2, 2012. He then approached the owner and demanded that he open the safe while continually pointing a handgun at him. After the owner complied, Mr. Fiolka emptied the safe of all its contents and then fled the scene.   

The Hobbs Act; credited to Congressman Sam Hobbs (D-AL) is a federal law that was passed over sixty years ago as a modification to the 1934 Anti-Racketeering Act. Both laws are related to penalizing organized crime and labor racketeering activities. However, in recent years the Hobbs Act has successfully been applied against robberies involving lethal weapons, victimizing local businesses. The law originally criminalized obstruction, delay, or impact on interstate commerce by robbery or extortion with the use of threatened or palpable violence.

Armed robbery is usually handled in a state prosecution but federal law enforcement is now getting tough on local armed robbers using the Hobbs Act as a tool. The Hobbs Act inflicts harsher penalties on armed thieves than state laws do. The complexity of the law makes it perfect for the FBI to exercise it as a maneuver to build cases against those who commit such crimes.

There are three major benefits to the prosecuting of a suspect under this federal law.
Primarily the consequences of a guilty outcome are much harsher than in state prosecutions. Possible sentences of twenty, to fifty years is not uncommon, and even sentences of life in prison have been passed down previously by federal courts in different parts of the country.

Secondly, since the federal system does not afford parole, if an individual is found guilty or accepts a guilty plea in a proceeding against them, under the Hobbs Act, they’ll have to serve the full term of their sentence.

Lastly, in some circumstances, when a person is charged under this law and they are aware that a lengthy prison sentence is forthcoming, they are more likely to implicate other suspects and may be further willing to cooperate with prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. This leverage assists authorities in having them provide names of other persons of interest and assist in delivering whatever knowledge of additional crimes they may have, in return for their own sentence reductions.

In one example of the law’s application, the Philadelphia Police Department and FBI had worked together scrutinizing commercial businesses that had been robbed by armed individuals. In 2010, a Violent Crimes Task Force was set up. In a successful Pennsylvania Hobbs case prosecution, Philadelphia FBI Special Agent J.J. Klaver said "The bottom line, as far as the task force is concerned, is to protect our community by getting dangerous criminals off the streets and into prison for a very long time."

A significant question whether a case should be tried in federal court or in the state court where the crime was committed is that a federal court needs to establish jurisdiction to prosecute the case. This jurisdiction must come under an existing law. Although a local armed holdup might not look like a crime that is proper for federal prosecution, the Hobbs Act allows it, and makes an armed robbery a federal crime in many circumstances.

Originally pursued as a way to crack down on organized crime and racketeering cases, the Hobbs Act usually affects robberies committed against national franchises, under the authority of Congress to create laws dealing with interstate commerce. However, if the crime fulfills the following criteria the Hobbs Act can be invoked: Did the defendant use or attempt to use the victim's reasonable fear of bodily injury or financial damage in order to convince the victim to agree to hand over property? Or was the use of violence or threats used to acquire money and or material goods from the business or its employees?

A copy of the Criminal Resource Manual located on the Department of Justice’s Website displaying a discussion on the topic of Hobbs Act case law relating to this case can be found by clicking this link.

U. S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman credited the FBI, under the direction of Acting Special Agent in Charge David Velazquez in Newark, with the favorable results of the investigation. He also thanked numerous New Jersey Police Departments as well as the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for their assistance that led to last week’s guilty plea.

The government was represented by the Criminal Division in Trenton, headed by Assistant U. S. Attorney Fabiana Pierre-Louis.

To read the official FBI press release click here.

As explained in this article, the penalties of a conviction under the Hobbs Act can be very severe. If you, or a family member or friend is accused of a crime such as this it is imperative that you retain an expert defense attorney with complete understanding in this field of federal criminal law.

My experience in this field of the law makes me a logical choice to fight any charges brought forward by the government. You can contact my office by email or by calling any of the phone numbers listed above.