RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Office of the State Comptroller of New York
DOCKET NO.: 12-357
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jan 11, 2013
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2013
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2013
Paul D. Clement - for the petitioner
Sarah E. Harrington - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Facts of the case
In 2008 the General Counsel for the Office of the State Comptroller of New York advised against investing in a fund managed by FA Technology Ventures. The investment would have given FA Technology millions in service fees. The General Counsel received an anonymous email of "blackballing a recommendation on a fund" and threatened to disclose the General Counsel's extramarital affair to his wife, to the Comptroller, and to others if he did not change his recommendation within 36 hours. On the advice of law enforcement, the General Counsel asked for more time, which the individual granted. The FBI traced the emails to Giridahr Sekhar, a managing partner of FA Technology. Sekhar later admitted to sending the emails.
Sekhar was charged with one account of extortion and six counts of interstate transmission of extortionate threats under the Hobbs Act. The Hobbs Act prohibits obtaining property by threats. Sekhar moved to dismiss, arguing that the General Counsel's recommendation was not property. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that the General Counsel's right to make professional decisions without outside influence was intangible personal property. Sekhar was convicted on six of the seven counts and sentenced to 15 months in jail. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.
Is the "recommendation" of an attorney, who is a salaried employee of a governmental agency, intangible property that can be the subject of an extortion attempt under the Hobbs Act?
Media for Sekhar v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 2013 in Sekhar v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 2013 in Sekhar v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 12-357, Sekhar versus United States.
I'm sorry about that but this is shorter.
This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to United States Court Of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
New York's common retirement fund is an employee pension fund for the State of New York and its local governments.
In October 2009, the State Comptroller's Office was considering whether to invest in a fund managed by FA Technology Ventures.
The general counsel of the office recommended against the investment.
The general counsel then received anonymous e-mails demanding that he recommend in favor of the investment and threatening, if he did not, to disclose publicly information about an alleged extramarital affair he was having.
The e-mails were traced to petitioner, a managing partner of FA Technology Ventures.
Petitioner was then convicted of attempted extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act, which defines extortion to mean, this definition is crucial, “the obtaining of property from another induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear.”
The Second Circuit affirmed the conviction.
It held that the general counsel had a property right to make a recommendation free from threats and that petitioner sought to obtain that right by attempting to force to general counsel to make a different recommendation.
We granted certiorari and now reverse.
Absent other indication, Congress intends to incorporate the well-settled meaning of the common-law terms that it uses in it statutes.
Extortion is one of the oldest crimes in our legal tradition.
Yet no case preceding the Hobbs Act ever identified conduct such as that charged here as extortion.
The text of the Act confirms that obtaining property requires “not only the deprivation but also the acquisition of property.”
The property extorted must therefore be transferable -- that is, capable of passing from one person to another.
The alleged property here lacks that defining feature.
The genesis of the Hobbs Act reinforces this conclusion.
Congress borrowed nearly verbatim the definition of extortion from a 1909 New York statute but did not copy the coercion provision contained in that statute.
At the time of the borrowing, New York courts had consistently held that the sort of interference with rights that occurred here was extortion -- I'm sorry was coercion.
Wow, I almost blew that one.
In support of the conviction, the government urges -- argues that the petitioner sought to obtain the general counsel's property right, but no fluent speaker of English would say that “petitioner obtained and exercised the general counsel's right to make a recommendation”, any more than he would say that a person “obtained and exercised another's right to free speech.”
He would say that “petitioner forced the general council to make a particular recommendation,” just as he would say that a person “forced another to make a particular statement.”
Adapting the Government's theory would not only make nonsense of words; it would collapse the longstanding distinction between extortion and coercion and would ignore Congress' choice to penalize one but not the other.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed.
Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor have joined.