FBI uses digital billboard network to fire warnings at criminal element

If you are driving in Philadelphia this week you may be shocked to see giant billboards announcing the blunt warning: "Rob a corner store with a gun in Philadelphia, you could get 25 years in prison."

The crystal-clear, but somewhat startling message will tell the thousands of people who see the billboards every day that in no uncertain terms the Philadelphia and FBI law enforcement community will be using what's known as the Hobbs Act to charge criminals committing multiple armed robberies with a federal crime.

According to an FBI release, under the Hobbs Act, any business that receives merchandise via interstate commerce is a victim and any robber can be charged with a federal offense of interfering with interstate commerce when committing a robbery of one of these businesses. In addition to the robbery charge, the subjects are charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and each offense has a mandatory minimum sentence. The first time a gun is used brings a minimum charge of seven years in prison. Each subsequent charge brings an additional charge of 25 years.

The Hobbs Act initiative was started in Philadelphia in January 2003 and currently, two detectives from the Philadelphia Police Department Major Crimes Unit as well as 10 FBI agents dedicated to the Hobbs Act Task Force, according to the FBI. The Hobbs Act Task Force targets groups involved in committing armed robberies of stores and commercial businesses including bars, fast food restaurants, gas stations, convenient stores, pizza parlors, Chinese food takeouts, and corners stores such as bodegas the FBI said.

Beginning this week the Clear Channel Outdoor Digital Outdoor Network will begin showing the Hobbs Act messages on seven billboards throughout the Philadelphia region.

Such local warnings could easily become a nation-wide effort though. You may recall that the FBI last December said it was working with Clear Channel to build a 150 digital billboard network in 20 major US cities.

The billboards will let the FBI highlight those people it is looking for the most: violent criminals, kidnap victims, missing kids, bank robbers, even terrorists, the FBI said in a release. And the billboards will be able to be updated largely in real-time -right after a crime is committed, a child is taken, or an attack is launched.

The FBI said it tested its first billboard in the Philadelphia area in September, with crystal-clear images of 11 of its most violent fugitives on eight billboards and a 24-hour hotline for the public to call. The billboards paid quick public safety dividends.

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