Does a conspiracy to commit extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2), require that the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy?
Lower court decision: United States v. Ocasio, 750 F.3d 399 (4th Cir. 2014)
This case will be of interest to federal practitioners who defend prosecutions under the Hobbs Act. That law defines extortion, in relevant part, as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, … under color of official right.” 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2). A public official violates that statute when he “obtain[s] a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts.” Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255, 268 (1992).
This case involves conspiracy to violate the Act. In particular, it asks if the person paying a bribe and the person accepting the bribe can be charged with conspiracy when they are not obtaining property from some third-party. The Fourth Circuit said “yes” in Ocasio’s case, holding he could be charged with conspiracy to commit extortion based on his participation in a scheme whereby he and other Baltimore police officers were paid by an auto body shop to encourage car-accident victims to take their cars to the body shop for repair. The court in Ocasio’s case expressly rejected a Sixth Circuit case that came to the opposite conclusion. The Sixth Circuit held that, based on the plain-language of the statute, the conspirators must obtain the property of someone outside of the conspiracy. United States v. Brock, 501 F.3d 762 (2007). No other circuit has taken a position on this question, so the circuit split, while clear, is limited. That obviously didn’t stop the Court from taking review.
This case will be argued and decided next Term.