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Ocasio v. United States

United States Supreme Court

May 2, 2016

Samuel Ocasio, Petitioner
v.
United States

         [136 S.Ct. 1424] Argued October 6, 2015

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

          SYLLABUS

         [136 S.Ct. 1425] [194 L.Ed.2d 522] Petitioner Samuel Ocasio, a former police officer, participated in a kickback scheme in which he and other officers routed damaged vehicles from accident scenes to an auto repair shop in exchange for payments from the shopowners. Petitioner [136 S.Ct. 1426] was charged with obtaining money from the shopowners under color of official right, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. At trial, the District Court rejected petitioner's argument that--because the Hobbs Act prohibits the obtaining of property " from another" --a Hobbs Act conspiracy requires proof that the alleged conspirators agreed to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy. Petitioner was convicted on all counts, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Petitioner now challenges his conspiracy conviction, contending that he cannot be convicted of conspiring with the shopowners to obtain money from them under color of official right.

          Held :

          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. Pp. ___-___, 194 L.Ed.2d, at 525-534.

         (a) The general federal conspiracy statute, under which petitioner was convicted, makes it a crime to " conspire . . . to commit any offense [194 L.Ed.2d 523] against the United States." 18 U.S.C. § 371. Section 371's use of the term " conspire" incorporates age-old principles of conspiracy law. And under established case law, the fundamental characteristic of a conspiracy is a joint commitment to an " endeavor which, if completed, would satisfy all of the elements of [the underlying substantive] criminal offense." Salinas v. United States, 522 U.S. 52, 65, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352. A conspirator need not agree to commit the substantive offense--or even be capable of committing it--in order to be convicted. It is sufficient that the conspirator agreed that the underlying crime be committed by a member of the conspiracy capable of committing it. See id., at 63-65, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352; United States v. Holte, 236 U.S. 140, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504; Gebardi v. United States, 287 U.S. 112, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. Pp. ___-___, 194 L.Ed.2d, at 526-529.

         (b) These basic principles of conspiracy law resolve this case. To establish the alleged Hobbs Act conspiracy, the Government only needed to prove an agreement that some conspirator commit each element of the substantive offense. Petitioner and the shopowners reached just such an agreement: They shared a common purpose that petitioner and other police officers would obtain property " from another" --that is, from the shopowners--under color of official right. Pp. ___-___, 194 L.Ed.2d, at 529.

         (c) Contrary to petitioner's claims, this decision does not dissolve the distinction between extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion. Nor does it transform every bribe of a public official into a conspiracy to commit extortion. And while petitioner exaggerates the impact of this decision, his argument would create serious practical problems. Under his approach, the validity of a charge of Hobbs Act conspiracy would often depend on difficult property-law questions having little to do with culpability. Pp. ___-___, 194 L.Ed.2d, at 529-533.

750 F.3d 399, affirmed.

         Ethan P. Davis argued the cause for petitioner.

         Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued the cause for respondents.

         Allon Kedem argued the cause for respondents.

         Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., joined.

          OPINION

         [136 S.Ct. 1427] Alito, Justice

         Petitioner Samuel Ocasio, a former officer in the Baltimore Police Department, participated in a kickback scheme with the owners of a local auto repair shop. When petitioner and other Baltimore officers reported to the scene of an auto accident, they persuaded the owners of damaged cars to have their vehicles towed to the repair shop, and in exchange for this service the officers received payments from the shopowners. Petitioner was convicted of obtaining money from the shopowners under color of official right, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. He now challenges his conspiracy conviction, contending that, as a matter of law, he cannot be convicted of conspiring with the shopowners to obtain money from [194 L.Ed.2d 524] them under color of official right. We reject this argument because it is contrary to age-old principles of conspiracy law.

         I

         Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia (known as Moreno) and Edwin Javier Mejia (known as Mejia) are brothers who co-owned and operated the Majestic Auto Repair Shop (Majestic). In 2008, Majestic was struggling to attract customers, so Moreno and Mejia made a deal with a Baltimore police officer, Jhonn Corona. In exchange for kickbacks, Officer Corona would refer motorists whose cars were damaged in accidents to Majestic for towing and repairs. Officer Corona then spread the word to other members of the force, and eventually as many as 60 other officers sent damaged cars to Majestic in exchange for payments of $150 to $300 per referral.

         Petitioner began to participate in this scheme in 2009. On several occasions from 2009 to 2011, he convinced accident victims to have their cars towed to Majestic. Often, before sending a car to Majestic, petitioner called Moreno from the scene of an accident to ensure that the make and model of the car, the extent of the damage, and the car's insurance coverage would allow the shopowners to turn a profit on the repairs. After directing a vehicle to Majestic, petitioner would call Moreno and request his payment.

         [136 S.Ct. 1428] Because police are often among the first to arrive at the scene of an accident, the Baltimore officers were well positioned to route damaged vehicles to Majestic. As a result, the kickback scheme was highly successful: It substantially increased Majestic's volume of business and profits, and by early 2011 it provided Majestic with at least 90% of its customers.

         Moreno, Mejia, petitioner, and nine other Baltimore officers were indicted in 2011. The shopowners and most of the other officers eventually pleaded guilty pursuant to plea deals, but petitioner did not.

         In a superseding indictment, petitioner was charged with three counts of violating the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, by extorting money from Moreno with his consent and under color of official right. As all parties agree, the type of extortion for which petitioner was convicted--obtaining property from another with his consent and under color of official right--is the " rough equivalent of what we would now describe as 'taking a bribe.'" Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255, 260, 112 S.Ct. 1881, 119 L.Ed.2d 57 (1992). To prove this offense, the Government " need only show that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts." Id., at 268, 112 S.Ct. 1881, 119 L.Ed.2d 57.

         Petitioner and another Baltimore officer, Kelvin Quade Manrich, were also charged with violating the general federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371. The indictment alleged that petitioner and Manrich conspired with Moreno, Mejia, and other Baltimore officers to bring about the same sort of substantive violations with which petitioner was charged.

         Before trial, petitioner began to raise a variant of the legal argument that has brought his case to this Court. He sought a jury instruction stating that " [i]n order to convict a [194 L.Ed.2d 525] defendant of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the conspiracy was to obtain money or property from some person who was not a member of the conspiracy." App. 53. In support of this instruction, petitioner relied on the Sixth Circuit's decision in United States v. Brock, 501 F.3d 762 (2007), which concerned two bail bondsmen who made payments to a court clerk in exchange for the alteration of court records. The Sixth Circuit held that " [t]o be covered by the [Hobbs Act], the alleged conspirators . . . must have formed an agreement to obtain 'property from another,' which is to say, formed an agreement to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy." Id., at 767. The District Court did not rule on this request prior to trial.

         Petitioner's codefendant, Manrich, pleaded guilty during the trial, and at the close of the prosecution's case and again at the close of all evidence, petitioner moved for a judgment of acquittal on the conspiracy count based on Brock. The District Court denied these motions, concluding that the Fourth Circuit had already rejected Brock 's holding in United States v. Spitler, 800 F.2d 1267 (1986).

         The District Court also refused to give petitioner's proposed instruction. Instead, the court adopted the sort of standard instructions that are typically used in conspiracy cases. See generally L. Sand et al., Modern Federal Jury Instructions: Criminal § 19.01 (2015). In order to convict petitioner of the conspiracy charge, the jury was told, the prosecution was required to prove (1) that two or more persons entered into an unlawful agreement; (2) that petitioner knowingly and willfully became a member of the conspiracy; (3) that at least one member of the [136 S.Ct. 1429] conspiracy knowingly committed at least one overt act; and (4) that the overt act was committed to further an objective of the conspiracy. The court " caution[ed]" " that mere knowledge or acquiescence, without participation in the unlawful plan, is not sufficient" to demonstrate membership in the conspiracy. App. 195. Rather, the court explained, the conspirators must have had " a mutual understanding . . . to cooperate with each other to accomplish an unlawful act," and petitioner must have joined the conspiracy " with the intention of aiding in the accomplishment of those unlawful ends." Id., at 192, 195.

         The jury found petitioner guilty on both the conspiracy count and the three substantive extortion counts, and the District Court sentenced him to concurrent terms of 18 months in prison on all four counts. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, petitioner's primary argument was the same one he had pressed before the District Court: that his conspiracy conviction was fatally flawed because the conspirators had not agreed to obtain money from a person who was not a member of the conspiracy. The Fourth Circuit rejected petitioner's argument and affirmed his convictions. 750 F.3d 399 (2014).

         We then granted certiorari, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1491, 191 L.Ed.2d 430 (2015), and we now affirm.

         II

          Under longstanding principles of conspiracy law, a defendant may be convicted of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act based on proof that he [194 L.Ed.2d 526] entered into a conspiracy that had as its objective the obtaining of property from another conspirator with his consent and under color of official right.

         A

         In analyzing petitioner's arguments, we begin with the text of the statute under which he was convicted, namely, the general federal conspiracy statute, which makes it a crime to " conspire. . . to commit any offense against the United States." 18 U.S.C. § 371 (emphasis added). Section 371's use of the term " conspire" incorporates long-recognized principles of conspiracy law. And under established case law, the fundamental characteristic of a conspiracy is a joint commitment to an " endeavor which, if completed, would satisfy all of the elements of [the underlying substantive] criminal offense." Salinas v. United States, 522 U.S. 52, 65, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352 (1997); see 2 J. Bishop, Commentaries on the Criminal Law § 175, p. 100 (rev. 7th ed. 1882) (" Conspiracy, in the modern law, is generally defined as a confederacy of two or more persons to accomplish some unlawful purpose" ); J. Hawley & M. McGregor, The Criminal Law 99-100 (3d ed. 1899) (similar); W. LaFave, Criminal Law 672 (5th ed. 2010) (similar).

          Although conspirators must " pursue the same criminal objective," " a conspirator [need] not agree to commit or facilitate each and every part of the substantive offense." Salinas, supra, at 63, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352. A defendant must merely reach an agreement with the " specific intent that the underlying crime be committed " by some member of the conspiracy. 2 K. O'Malley, J. Grenig, & W. Lee, Federal Jury Practice and Instructions: Criminal § 31:03, p. 225 (6th ed. 2008) (emphasis added); see also id., § 31:02, at 220 (explaining that a defendant must " intend to agree and must intend that the substantive offense be committed " (emphasis added)). " The government does not have to prove that the defendant intended to commit the underlying offense himself/herself." Id., § 31:03, at 226. Instead, " [i]f [136 S.Ct. 1430] conspirators have a plan which calls for some conspirators to perpetrate the crime and others to provide support, the supporters are as guilty as the perpetrators." Salinas, supra, at 64, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352; see Sand, supra, § 19.01, at 19-54 (" [W]hen people enter into a conspiracy to accomplish an unlawful end, each and every member becomes an agent for the other conspirators in carrying out the conspiracy" ).

         A few simple examples illustrate this important point. Entering a dwelling is historically an element of burglary, see, e.g., LaFave, supra, at 1069, but a person may conspire to commit burglary without agreeing to set foot inside the targeted home. It is enough if the conspirator agrees to help the person who will actually enter the dwelling, perhaps by serving as a lookout or driving the getaway car. Likewise, " [a] specific intent to distribute drugs oneself is not required to secure a conviction for participating in a drug-trafficking conspiracy." United States v. Piper, 35 F.3d 611, 614 (CA1 1994). Agreeing to store drugs at one's house in support of the conspiracy may be sufficient. Ibid.

          Not only is it unnecessary for each member of a conspiracy to agree to commit each element of the substantive [194 L.Ed.2d 527] offense, but also a conspirator may be convicted " even though he was incapable of committing the substantive offense" himself. Salinas, supra, at 64, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352; see United States v. Rabinowich, 238 U.S. 78, 86, 35 S.Ct. 682, 59 L.Ed. 1211 (1915) (" A person may be guilty of conspiring although incapable of committing the objective offense" ); Sand, supra, § 19.01, at 19-3 (" [ Y ]ou may find the defendant guilty of conspiracy despite the fact that he himself was incapable of committing the substantive crime" ).

         The Court applied these principles in two cases involving the Mann Act. See Act of June 25, 1910, ch. 395, 36 Stat. 825. Section 2 of the Mann Act made it a crime to transport a woman or cause her to be transported across state lines for an immoral purpose. [1] In United States v. Holte, 236 U.S. 140, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504 (1915), a federal grand jury charged a woman, Clara Holte, with conspiring with a man named Chester Laudenschleger to violate this provision. The District Court dismissed the charge against Holte, holding that because a woman such as Holte could not be convicted for the substantive offense of transporting herself or causing [136 S.Ct. 1431] herself to be transported across state lines, she also could not be convicted of conspiring to commit that offense.

         In a succinct opinion by Justice Holmes, the Court rejected this argument, stating that " plainly a person may conspire for the commission of a crime by a third person," even if " she could not commit the substantive crime" herself. Id., at 144-145, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504. [2] The dissent argued that this holding effectively turned every woman who acquiesced [194 L.Ed.2d 528] in a covered interstate trip into a conspirator, see id., at 148, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504 (opinion of Lamar, J.), but the Court disagreed. The Court acknowledged that " there may be a degree of cooperation" insufficient to make a woman a conspirator, but it refused to rule out the possibility that a woman could conspire to cause herself to be transported. Id., at 144, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504. To illustrate this point, the Court provided the example of a woman who played an active role in planning and carrying out the trip. [3]

         The Court expanded on these points in Gebardi v. United States, 287 U.S. 112, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206 (1932), another Mann Act conspiracy case. A man and a woman were convicted for conspiring to transport the woman from one state to another for an immoral purpose. Id., at 115-116, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. In deciding the case, the Gebardi Court explicitly reaffirmed the longstanding principle that " [i]ncapacity of one to commit the substantive offense does not necessarily imply that he may with impunity conspire with others who are able to commit it." Id., at 120, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. Moreover, the Court fully accepted Holte 's holding that a woman could be convicted of conspiring to cause herself to be transported across state lines. See 287 U.S., at 116-117, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. But the Court held that the evidence before it was insufficient to support the conspiracy convictions because it " show[ed] no more than that [the woman] went willingly upon the journeys for the purposes alleged." Id., at 117, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. Noting that there was no evidence that the woman was " the active or moving spirit in conceiving or carrying out the transportation," the Court held that the evidence of her " mere consent" or " acquiescence" was not enough. Id., at 117, 123, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206. [4]

         [136 S.Ct. 1432] Holte and Gebardi make perfectly clear that a person may be convicted of conspiring to commit a substantive offense that he or she cannot personally [194 L.Ed.2d 529] commit. They also show that when that person's consent or acquiescence is inherent in the underlying substantive offense, something more than bare consent or acquiescence may be needed to prove that the person was a conspirator.

         B

         These basic principles of conspiracy law resolve this case. In order to establish the existence of a conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act, the Government has no obligation to demonstrate that each conspirator 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. In other words, each conspirator must have specifically intended that some conspirator commit each element of the substantive offense. [5]

         That is exactly what happened here: Petitioner, Moreno, and Mejia " share[d] a common purpose," namely, that petitioner and other police officers would commit every element of the substantive extortion offense. Salinas, 522 U.S., at 63-64, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352. Petitioner and other officers would obtain property " under color of official right," something that Moreno and Mejia were incapable of doing because they were not public officials. And petitioner and other officers would obtain that money from " another," i.e., from Moreno, Mejia, or Majestic. Although Moreno and Mejia were incapable of committing the underlying substantive offense as principals, [6] they could, under the reasoning of Holte and Gebardi, conspire to commit Hobbs Act extortion by agreeing to help petitioner and other officers commit the substantive offense. See Holte, 236 U.S., at 145, 35 S.Ct. 271, 59 L.Ed. 504 (" [A] conspiracy with an officer or employé of the government or any other for an offence that only he could commit has been [136 S.Ct. 1433] held for many years to fall within the conspiracy section . . . of the penal code" ); see also Salinas, supra, at 63-64, 118 S.Ct. 469, 139 L.Ed.2d 352; Gebardi, supra, at 120-121, 53 S.Ct. 35, 77 L.Ed. 206; Rabinowich, 238 U.S., at 86, 35 S.Ct. 682, 59 L.Ed. 1211. For these reasons, it is clear that petitioner could be convicted of conspiring to obtain property from the shopowners with their consent and under color of official right.

         C

         In an effort to escape this conclusion, petitioner argues that the usual rules do not apply to the type of Hobbs Act conspiracy charged in this case. [194 L.Ed.2d 530] His basic argument, as ultimately clarified, [7] is as follows. All members of a conspiracy must share the same criminal objective. The objective of the conspiracy charged in this case was to obtain money " from another, with his consent . . . under color of official right." But Moreno and Mejia did not have the objective of obtaining money " from another" because the money in question was their own. Accordingly, they were incapable of being members of the conspiracy charged in this case. And since [136 S.Ct. 1434] there is insufficient evidence in the record to show that petitioner conspired with anyone other than Moreno and Mejia, he must be acquitted. See Reply Brief 3-11, 17-20.

         This argument fails for a very simple reason: Contrary to petitioner's claim, he and the shopowners did have a common criminal objective. The objective was not that each conspirator, including Moreno and Mejia, would obtain money from " another" but rather that petitioner and other Baltimore officers would do so. See App. 36-37, Superseding Indictment ¶ 11 (" It was a purpose of the conspiracy for Moreno and Mejia to enrich over 50 BPD [Baltimore Police [194 L.Ed.2d 531] Department] Officers . . . in exchange for the BPD Officers' exercise of their official positions and influence to cause vehicles to be towed or otherwise delivered to Majestic" ). Petitioner does not dispute that he was properly convicted for three substantive Hobbs Act violations based on proof that he obtained money " from another." The criminal objective on which petitioner, Moreno, and Mejia agreed was that petitioner and other Baltimore officers would commit substantive violations of this nature. Thus, under well-established rules of conspiracy law, petitioner was ...


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