United States v. Nardello

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: The corner of Lafayette Avenue and St. James Place

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)

CITATION: 393 US 286 (1969)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1968
DECIDED: Jan 13, 1969

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Nardello

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1968 in United States v. Nardello

Earl Warren:

Number 51, United States, appellant versus Joseph Francis Nardello and Isadore Weisberg.

Mr. Solicitor General.

Erwin N. Griswold:

May it please the Court.

I move the motion pro hac vice for the purpose of arguing this case of Mr. Philip A. Lacovara of my staff who was a member of the Bar of the State of New York.

Earl Warren:

Motion is granted.

Mr. Lacovara.

Philip A. Lacovara:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case which is here on direct appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania grows out of the efforts to uncover and prosecute the members of a multi-state ring which specializes in extorting money from victims upon threat to accuse them of homosexual activities.

The indictments in the present case were returned under a federal interstate racketeering statute.

The so-called Travel Act Section 1952 of the Federal Criminal Code which makes it a federal offense to travel in interstate commerce with the intent to carry on an unlawful activity including extortion in violation of the laws of the state in which committed and thereafter to perform an act promoting that objective.

The indictments in the present case were on appellee's motion dismissed by the District Court.

The Court found first that in using the term extortion, Congress intended that the term should track closely the legal understanding of that term under state law.

But that in Pennsylvania, the crime captioned extortion is the common law form of extortion, that is the crime committed by a public officer who takes an unauthorized or excessive fee.

In that sense, the appellees had not been alleged to be public officers and in fact were conceded not to be.

The indictment failed the state in offense against them.

It's the Government's contention that this statute uses the term extortion and the other terms that are listed in the statute generically, so that conduct has referred to a sort of criminal activity, extortion at acts and that interstate travel to promote this type of act is reached by the federal statute so long as the conduct is made unlawful by the law of the state whatever the particular label the state happens to attach to it.

The issue before the Court this morning is whether the Government's construction rather then the District Court is the correct one.

The Travel Act which was enacted in 1961 is part of a series of measures to combat organized crime and racketeering makes it a general offense provides generally that interstate travel to promote an unlawful activity as subsequently defined is a federal violation.

Interstate -- unlawful activity could be in violation of the law of the state or of the United States and for relevant purposes the statute makes it a federal violation to travel in interstate commerce to carry on extortion in violation of the laws of several -- of a particular state.

The allegations in the present indictments alleged that at least one of the conspirators traveled in interstate commerce from Chicago to Philadelphia in two cases and from Camden, New Jersey to Philadelphia, and the third with the intent to promote an activity unlawful under Pennsylvania law.

The controversy in this case arises from the fact that under Pennsylvania law, extortion at conduct is termed blackmail rather than extortion but Pennsylvania does have as I mentioned the continuation of the original ancient common law and notion of extortion, the acceptance by public officer of unlawful fees.

The District Court on its analysis of the language of the statute and its legislative history concluded that Congress intended when it spoke of extortion and violation of the laws of the state in which committed that the federal term should track closely the legal understanding of that term in state law.

We contend that this construction of the statute, this serves the remedial objectives of this federal legislation and in supportively narrows its plain meaning.

I should like to turn first to the background and purpose of the statute.

I mentioned that this was one of a series of measures submitted by the Department of Justice in 1961 to bring federal resources and the federal criminal process to bear on a problem which had outgrown the capacity of state and local governments to deal with.

And that is the situation which we've encountered through the ability of the modern organized syndicate criminal to conduct illegal operations from a remote state sending minions back and forth across state lines to carry out various forms of illicit activity using the long distance telephone to manage or carry out various forms of violations of state laws.

This mobility and this diffusion of organization made it extremely difficult for state and local authorities to investigate or to prosecute violations of their local laws.

Now, the statute as it's clear both from its language and its legislative history does not pruport to close off the channels of interstate commerce to all attempts to violate state law because its focus was organized crime and racketeering, the organs of communication from one state to another were to be interrupted for those who would travel in commerce to carry out unlawful activities only with respect to activities which years of investigation by state and local crime commissions by the Federal Government and by Congressional Committees had shown to be the mainstays of organized crime.

And for that reason, the term “unlawful activity” in the Travel Act is defined to include only business enterprises involving gambling, prostitution, liquor and narcotics violation and extortion, bribery and arson in violation of state or Federal law.

These were the activities that these investigations had established to be one of the principal occupations of the organized modern nationwide criminal operations.