Police blotter: Convicted eBay robber loses appeal

Court rejects appeal of man who offered nonexistent "muscle cars" on eBay and robbed buyer who showed up with cash.

"Police blotter" is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: eBay scammer was convicted of interstate robbery and acquitted of a gun charge, but he received a higher sentence from a judge based on the gun charge anyway. He lost his appeal of the higher sentence earlier this month.

When: U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rules on February 7.

Outcome: Sentence of more than 16 years in prison based on a gun charge is upheld.

What happened, according to court documents: Dewan Anthony Horne had invented a scam that was both cunning and criminal. He would advertise vintage "muscle cars" for sale on eBay and offer a good price. Once Horne struck up a conversation with a prospective buyer, he'd suggest coming to Indianapolis and paying for the car in cash or the equivalent.

The hitch: the cars for sale didn't exist. When the would-be purchaser showed up at a garage on the east side of Indianapolis, Horne and at least one gun-toting accomplice would attempt to rob the eBay buyer of the cash and anything else of value.

Horne didn't seem very good at his line of work. Beyond the detail of being nabbed by the police, court documents indicate that he managed to complete only one robbery.

An article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal from March 2005, the time of Horne's indictment by a federal grand jury, described how the robbery scam worked. "A father and son from Georgia and South Carolina were forced at gunpoint to lie down while Horne and his partners took more than $9,000 in cash and equipment from their truck before leaving in Horne's car," the article said, based on the indictment. (The equipment was a satellite navigation system.)

Still, even one completed robbery was enough to get Horne arrested. Like most crimes, robbery usually is prosecuted by states and not the federal government. But the U.S. Department of Justice argued that Horne's use of eBay to lure his prey ran afoul of the federal Hobbs Act's prohibition on robbery that "in any way or degree obstructs, delays or affects commerce."

Horne's attorneys argued that the Hobbs Act didn't apply, saying any crimes that occurred arose in face-to-face encounters, and neither the car nor the cash was transferred across state lines. (It's unclear why the cash didn't physically cross state lines; the father and son may have withdrawn it from a local branch of their bank.)

This is a novel use of the Hobbs Act. A February 12 article in the Wisconsin Law Journal says: "No other court of appeals has yet considered application of the Hobbs Act to a robbery, merely because it was facilitated by the Internet. The cases that the court cites for support of its holding all involve either possession of child pornography obtained over the Internet or use of the Internet to solicit children for sexual intercourse."

The trial judge and the 7th Circuit agreed that the extension of the Hobbs Act was reasonable. The 7th Circuit said the Internet is inherently international in scope, "and the buy-and-sell offers communicated over it, in this case, created interstate transactions and were affected by the defendant's fraud."

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