Supreme Court Defeat for Extortionist Cop

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Three justices complained Monday that the Supreme Court reinforced bad precedent equating extortion and bribery by upholding a former Baltimore police officer’s convictions.
     Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that today’s “holding further exposes the flaw in this court’s understanding of extortion.”
     The 1992 decision Evans v. United States laid the foundation for this outcome by “wrongly equat[ing] extortion with bribery,” Thomas added.
     “In so holding, Evans made it seem plausible that an extortionist could conspire with his victim,” the dissent continues. “Rather than embrace that view, I would not extend Evans’ errors further.”
     Chief Justice John Roberts joined a separate dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
     “In upholding the conspiracy conviction here, the court interprets the phrase extorting property ‘from another’ in the Hobbs Act contrary to that natural understanding,” Sotomayor wrote. “It holds that a group of conspirators can agree to obtain property ‘from another’ in violation of the act even if they agree only to transfer property among themselves. That is not a natural or logical way to interpret the phrase ‘from another.’ I respectfully dissent.”
     Though Justice Stephen Breyer joined the majority ruling, he wrote in a concurring opinion that the dissenters have a point.
     “I think it is an exceptionally difficult question whether ‘extortion’ within the meaning of the Hobbs Act is really ‘the rough equivalent of … taking a bribe’ — especially when we admittedly decided that question in that case without the benefit of full briefing on extortion’s common-law history.”
     Breyer agreed that “the present case underscores some of the problems that Evans raises,” but said the court must nonetheless “take Evans as good law.”
     The case stems from Samuel Ocasio’s conviction in 2012 of three counts of Hobbs Act extortion, and one count of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act extortion.
     Ocasio had been one of nine Baltimore police officers indicted in March 2011 on charges of taking bribes from Majestic Auto Repair Shop in exchange for sending that business any wrecked automobiles in the city.
     Later that year, all of the originally indicted officers except for Ocasio had reached plea agreements. A superseding indictment took aim only at Ocasio and a fellow officer who had not been indicted in March.
     Ocasio’s co-defendant struck a plea deal after the prosecution rested, and the court heard testimony from the brothers who owned Majestic, Herman Moreno and Edwin Mejia, both of whom took plea deals as well.
     A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed those convictions in April 2014, as did the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-3 Monday.
     Citing the basic principles of conspiracy law, the ruling rejects Ocasio’s argument that the government should have proved he “agreed personally to commit — or was even capable of committing — the substantive offense of Hobbs Act extortion.”
     “It is sufficient to prove that the conspirators agreed that the underlying crime be committed by a member of the conspiracy who was capable of committing it,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
     Here Moreno and Mejia “share[d] a common purpose,” Alito said, “namely, that petitioner and other police officers would commit every element of the substantive extortion offense.”
     “Although Moreno and Mejia were incapable of committing the underlying substantive offense as principals, they could … conspire to commit Hobbs Act extortion by agreeing to help petitioner and other officers commit the substantive offense,” Alito added. “For these reasons, it is clear that petitioner could be convicted of conspiring to obtain property from the shop owners with their consent and under color of official right.”
     The ruling concludes with Alito saying: “A defendant may be convicted of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act based on proof that he reached an agreement with the owner of the property in question to obtain that property under color of official right. Because petitioner joined such an agreement, his conspiracy conviction must stand.”

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