Ocasio v. United States

Issues 

Under the Hobbs Act, can a person accused of conspiracy to commit extortion be convicted for extorting a fellow conspirator?

Oral argument: 
October 6, 2015

Samuel Ocasio, a former officer of the Baltimore Police Department, was involved in a kickback scheme in which officers would refer car accident victims to an unauthorized towing company in exchange for monetary compensation. Ocasio was charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951. In this case, the Supreme Court will address whether the conspirators have to agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy. See Brief for Petitioner, Samuel Ocasio at i. Ocasio claims that a defendant must conspire with someone to obtain property from another person outside the conspiracy. See id. at 21. The United States counters that the conspirators in an extortion scheme need to agree only that the public official will obtain property from another person, but that the other person may be one of the co-conspirators. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 15. The decision in this case will implicate the boundaries between state criminal law and federal law for extortion. The decision will also clarify the method of statutory interpretation applied when statutory language is ambiguous. See Brief of Amici Curiae Former United States Attorneys, in Support of Petitioner at 4, 10.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does a conspiracy to commit extortion, as defined by the Hobbs Act, require that the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy?

Facts 

Samuel Ocasio is a former officer of the Baltimore Police Department (“BPD”). United States v. Ocasio, 750 F.3d 399 (4th Cir. 2014). On March 9, 2011, Ocasio, along with ten other co-defendants, were indicted in the District of Maryland for being involved in a kickback scheme that began in late 2008 or early 2009. Id. at 2, 7. The BPD officers would refer victims of car accidents to Majestic Repair Shop to tow their cars. Id. at 5. For the referral, the BPD officers would receive $150 to $350 from the co-owners of the repair shop. Id. at 2. The co-owners of Majestic Repair Shop were also named as co-defendants along with the police officers. Id. at 2.

According to the BPD General Orders, officers cannot receive or solicit any type of compensation without the permission of the Police Commissioner. Id. at 6–7. Furthermore, departmental towing procedures require BPD officers to contact a preapproved towing company via the BPD communications center if vehicle owners decline to contact their own insurance companies, or if vehicles require towing in an emergency situation. Id. at 7. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and BPD conducted an investigation into the scheme. Id. at 5. Ocasio entered the scheme in May 2009, and on several occasions, he spoke with one of the co-owners of the repair shop and received compensation for referrals. Id. at 7.

With the exception of Ocasio and one other BPD officer, the defendants pleaded guilty to involvement in the kickback scheme, and consequently the conspiracy charges against them were dismissed. Id. at 3. On October 19, 2011, a grand jury indicted Ocasio for conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 371, and for three counts of extortion of the co-owners of Majestic Repair Shop under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951. Id. at 4. Ocasio argued in an acquittal motion that he could not be convicted of conspiring with the co-owners of the repair shop, and relied on United States v. Brock, 501 F.3d 762 (6th Cir. 2007), in which the Sixth Circuit found that the victim and the co-conspirator could not be the same person in an extortion. Id. at 15. The district court denied Ocasio’s acquittal motion, maintaining that Ocasio could be convicted under the Hobbs Act in light of United States v. Spitler, 800 F.2d 1267 (4th Cir.1985). Id. at 15–16. The jury found Ocasio guilty of all charges. Id. at 17. Ocasio appealed the Hobbs Act conspiracy conviction. Id. at 18. The district court reviewed the case de novo. Id. On April 29, 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Ocasio’s conviction. Id. at 29.

Ocasio appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Brief for Petitioner, Samuel Ocasio at 14. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 2, 2015 to determine whether a conspiracy to commit extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, requires conspirators to agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy. Id. at 4.

Analysis 

The issue before the Court is whether a conspiracy to commit extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, requires that the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy. See Brief for Petitioner, Samuel Ocasio at i. The Hobbs Act defines extortion as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, . . . under color of official right.” See id. Ocasio asserts that the government must prove that a defendant conspired to obtain property from a person outside the conspiracy. Id. at 21. But the United States maintains that the conspirators in an extortion scheme need to agree only that the public official will obtain property from another person, and that the other person may be one of the co-conspirators. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 15.

DOES THE PLAIN TEXT OF THE HOBBS ACT REQUIRE THAT CONSPIRATORS COMMITTING EXTORTION AGREE TO OBTAIN PROPERTY FROM SOMEONE OUTSIDE OF THE CONSPIRACY?

Ocasio argues that the plain text of the Hobbs Act eliminates the possibility that a public official and a briber could conspire together to commit extortion. See Brief for Petitioner at 21. Examining the definitions of the specific phrases used in 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2), Ocasio argues that because the word “another” means one more person in addition to those already identified, and because “to conspire” is the action of two or more people agreeing to break the law, the text of the Hobbs Act requires that the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone other than themselves. See id. at 22. Ocasio contends that a party cannot be both a victim of a conspiracy to commit extortion and a conspirator to the extortion. Id. at 23–24. Rather, Ocasio argues, because the Hobbs Act seeks to punish “‘whoever’ conspires to obtain property from ‘another,’” the “whoever” and the “another” cannot be the same person. Id. at 24. Ocasio also argues that the Fourth Circuit’s conclusion that the phrase “from another” is only meant to reflect that a public official cannot extort herself is illogical, because it is impossible for a public official to pay herself a bribe with her own money. Id. at 29. Ocasio maintains that the text of the Hobbs Act is clear and that because courts must presume that the legislature means what the language of a statute says, the Court should reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision on textual grounds alone. See id. at 31.

The United States asserts that Ocasio ignores the language of the general federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371 (“§ 371”), altogether. See Brief for Respondent at 20. The United States asserts that § 371 provides that two or more persons who conspire to commit any crime against the United States are guilty of conspiracy even if only one of them physically does the necessary act. See id. at 16. Thus, the United States argues, Ocasio and the repair shop owners in this case could conspire together, even though the repair shop owners could not physically commit the acts of public-official extortion. See id. at 23. The United States asserts that in order to satisfy the elements of conspiracy under the Hobbs Act, the conspirators need not agree that both parties will obtain the property, but only that a public official will obtain the property with the consent of the other conspiring party. See id. at 24. The United States contends that Ocasio misreads the Hobbs Act, and that while “whoever” refers to the public official, “property from another” merely refers to property belonging to anyone other than that official. See id. at 21. Furthermore, the United States argues that Ocasio’s claim that the “whoever” and the “another” must be different people is a result of Ocasio’s “cobbling together” the language of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) with the language of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2). Id. The United States maintains that “whoever” the government prosecutes for conspiracy to commit extortion does not necessarily have to be the same person who obtains the property. Id. at 25. In addition, the United States argues that Ocasio’s interpretation entails that only public officials could be the “whoever” who could be prosecuted as conspirators, but that the Hobbs Act does not indicate that private parties who participate in extortion are immune from conspiracy liability. See id.

WOULD AFFIRMING THE FOURTH CIRCUIT’S DECISION BLUR THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN BRIBERY AND CONSPIRACY TO COMMIT EXTORTION?

Ocasio argues that the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of the Hobbs Act imposes criminal liability on both public officials who take bribes and private citizens who pay them, and thus turns the act into a broader bribery statute. See Brief for Petitioner at 31–32. Ocasio asserts that if the Court does not require the government to prove that conspirators agreed to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy, then every payment of a bribe would also be a conspiracy to commit extortion, and hence the private citizen paying the bribe could be convicted of conspiracy. Id. at 32–33. Ocasio argues, however, that the Court has never interpreted the Hobbs Act to impose liability on a bribe-payor. Id. at 32. But Ocasio contends that if the Court affirms the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the government will be able to add conspiracy to almost every indictment alleging substantive extortion under the Hobbs Act. See id. at 37. Ocasio maintains that the Court has consistently recognized the distinction between substantive offenses and conspiracy to commit those offenses, and that if Congress intended to allow the government to prosecute the same conduct as both offenses, it would have clearly stated that in the language of the Hobbs Act. See id. at 38–39.

But the United States maintains that the Fourth Circuit’s decision does not necessarily impose criminal liability on bribe-payors, because bribe-payors who merely acquiesce “to an official demand,” rather than those who actively participate in a conspiracy with a public official, will not be prosecuted as conspirators. See Brief for Respondent at 33. The United States argues that principles of common law support prosecution of a bribe-payor who actively participates in a conspiracy to commit extortion under the conspiratorial provisions of the Hobbs Act. See id. at 37. And the United States contends that Ocasio has not provided any evidence that judges or juries have struggled with the distinction between a bribe-payor who merely consents to paying a bribe to a public official, and one who actively participates in a conspiracy to commit extortion with the public official. See id. at 38.

DO PRINCIPLES OF FEDERALISM AND LENITY REQUIRE THAT THE COURT INTERPRET THE HOBBS ACT NARROWLY?

Ocasio contends that the Fourth Circuit’s decision displaces existing state laws that punish bribery by transforming payments of bribes to public officials into federal conspiracies to commit extortion. See Brief for Petitioner at 43–44. Ocasio argues that principles of federalism require that the Court apply a narrow interpretation to the Hobbs Act as to prevent the government from extending into the states’ legal territory. See id. at 43. Ocasio maintains that the Hobbs Act does not reflect a clear congressional intent to extend into the states’ territory and that the Court should thus prevent a shift in the existing balance between federal and state law. See id. at 44. Ocasio also maintains that the rule of lenity calls for resolving any ambiguity in favor of his position. Id. According to Ocasio, the rule of lenity encourages the Court to choose the less harsh of two possible readings of a criminal statute unless Congress has clearly intended otherwise. Id. at 44–45. Ocasio notes that the Court has already expressed disfavor toward the government’s attempts to broaden the realm of conspiracy prosecutions. See id. at 45.

The United States emphasizes that its interpretation of the Hobbs Act would not displace existing state laws, because it would not turn the statute into a general federal prohibition on paying bribes. See Brief for Respondent at 42. Furthermore, the United States contends that Congress expressly intended to apply the Hobbes Act to certain conspiracies to commit extortion and that it would punish the participating conspirators. See id. And the United States disputes Ocasio’s application of the rule of lenity, which it maintains only applies to criminal statutes that contain a “grievous ambiguity.” Id. The United States contends that the possibility of both broad and narrow interpretations of the Hobbs Act, and the existence of some ambiguity in the text of the statute, are insufficient reasons to apply the rule of lenity in this case. See id.

Discussion 

The Supreme Court will decide how the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, should be interpreted. Brief for Petitoner, Samuel Ocasio at 20. Ocasio argues that the plain language of the Hobbs Act—“[t]he term ‘extortion’ means the obtaining of property ‘from another’”—means that co-conspirators can only be convicted if they conspire to take property from someone outside the conspiracy. Id. at 22; see also 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2) (emphasis added). The United States argues that a conspiracy under the Hobbs Act merely requires that all the participants agree to obtain property from another, but that the “other” may be one of the co-conspirators. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 15. The Court’s decision in this case implicates the potential expansion of federal law into state criminal law. See Brief of Amici Curiae Former United States Attorneys, in Support of Petitioner at 4. This case also implicates the method of ambiguous statutory interpretation. See id. at 10.

FEDERAL EXPANSION INTO STATE CRIMINAL LAW?

Former United States Attorneys, in support of Ocasio, argue that interpreting the language “from another” as the United States proposes would expand federal law into state criminal law. See Brief of Former United States Attorneys at 10. The attorneys contend that the United States’ interpretation would alter the prosecution of crimes; private-citizen bribery, generally a state-law issue, and public-official extortion, a federal, Hobbs-Act issue, would both be treated with the gravity of a federal offense, thereby diluting the power of the Hobbs Act. See id. The attorneys state, “The Hobbs Act . . . should be reserved for those prosecutions where a public official engages in the harmful and serious crime of extortion.” See id. at 11. The attorneys suggest that Congress did not intend for federal prosecutors to have such broad jurisdiction. See id. at 9. Similarly, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) asserts that the Court has in the past allowed state law to control crimes that have already been criminalized by states. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in Support of Petitioner at 11. Interpreting the statute as the United States does would cause federal law to criminalize something that states already criminalize. Id.

The United States counters that not all cases would be transformed into federal offenses if the Hobbs Act is properly read. Brief for Respondent at 42. The element of consent is necessary for extortion, but not coercion. Id.at 30. The Hobbs Act provision maintains the requirement of the element of consent and therefore maintains the difference between the two crimes. Id. at 30. Furthermore, a person accused of extortion will not automatically be accused of conspiracy. Id. at 32. The Hobbs Act, therefore, preserves the line between federal offenses and state offenses. Id.at 42.

METHOD OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

The Former United States Attorneys contend that if the language in the statute is unclear, then the Court should use the “rule of lenity” to interpret the statue. See Brief of Former United States Attorneys at 10. According to the rule of lenity, if there are two potential interpretations, the less harsh interpretation should be adopted unless Congress has indicated otherwise. Id. at 8. In support, the NACDL asserts that individuals must have fair notice of crimes. See Brief of The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at 4. If language in the statue is unclear, then individuals do not have fair notice. Id. at 5. Therefore, the NACDL argues that the words “from another” should be given narrow effect. Id. at 5–8.

Conversely, the United States contends that the rule of lenity does not apply solely because there is some ambiguity. See Brief for Respondent at 42. The rule of lenity should be applied only if it cannot be determined what Congress intended. See id. at 43. In the Hobbs Act, the United States argues that Congress intended to criminalize a person actively conceiving or carrying out an extortion scheme. Id. at 38–39. Further, the interpretation that the United States suggests is consistent with the principles of conspiracy law. Id. at 29.

Conclusion 

The Supreme Court will decide whether the government is required to show that a public official agreed to obtain property from a person outside a conspiracy in order to prosecute that official for conspiracy to commit extortion under the Hobbs Act. See Brief for Petitioner, Samuel Ocasio at i. Ocasio argues that the Court should find that the “another” from whom a public official extorts must be someone outside the conspiracy. See id. at 21. The United States counters that the Fourth Circuit’s decision that the public official need only have obtained property from anyone other than herself should be affirmed. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 15. Ultimately, the Court’s decision may affect the distinction between state bribery law and federal conspiracy to commit extortion, and will determine the interpretation to given to the language of the Hobbs Act. See Brief of Amici Curiae Former United States Attorneys, in Support of Petitioner at 4, 10.

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