The Hobbs Act – a law promulgated in 1946 to deal with the infiltration of racketeering activity in labor unions – got a “W” in its column yesterday with the Supreme Court’s issuance of Ocasio v. United States. Justice Alito, writing for the 5-3 majority, affirmed the convictions of a Baltimore police officer for Hobbs Act extortion and conspiracy to commit the same for accepting kickbacks in exchange for directing cars post-accident to his co-conspirator’s auto body shop for repairs.
The Hobbs Act is a vehicle typically used by federal prosecutors to charge a public official “who took ‘by colour of his office’ money that was not due to him for the performance of his official duties,” or more simply put, the Hobbs Act provides for the prosecution of law enforcement officials and politicians who accept bribes or extort others via their professional office. Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255, 260 (1992). The definition of extortion under the Hobbs Act requires the obtaining of property (think money, gifts, entertainment, etc.) from another with his consent. Id. at 265.
In a strict constructionist argument that would have made the late Justice Scalia proud, Ocasio argued that the Government did not carry its burden on this requisite element of the Hobbs Act by failing to prove that he had obtained property “from another.” Sure, Ocasio accepted money in exchange for routing beat up cars to his co-conspirator’s repair shop, but he shrewdly pointed to the fact that he accepted the said property, i.e. his kickbacks, directly from his co-conspirator and not from another individual outside the conspiracy. Therefore, he concluded that although his co-conspirators paid him off, there was no agreement – and could be no agreement – to obtain property from another individual or individuals. Clever argument? Yeah. Successful? No.
Justice Alito rejected this argument, in sum, agreeing with the Government that Ocasio’s acceptance of kickbacks from his conspiring bribe payors, satisfied the “from another” element of the Hobbs Act. Any suggestion proffered by the defense that the bribe must have been paid from an individual outside or beyond the conspiracy was swiftly dismissed by majority Justices Alito, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Moral of the story: just like the man who becomes his own grandpa, one can now be both a victim and a co-conspirator under the Hobbs Act.