“Take Me Out to the Ballgame?” Asked the Inspector: Saying “Yes” May Now Be a Federal Crime

By Barry M. Hartman, Michael D. Ricciuti, Jasmine S. McGhee, Brian J. Smith

Imagine this hypothetical: A local fire marshal says to Mary Jones, who runs the residence halls at a major university, “It must be nice having seats at the Saturday football games.” Mary gets the message and thinks that if she agrees to offer the fire marshal tickets, he will be less likely to “nitpick” during his inspections of the residence halls. Could the government claim that this is a bribe by Mary within the meaning of the Hobbs Act’s proscription against “extortion” by public officials?

On May 2, in Ocasio v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the reach of federal corruption law to cover private individuals who are involved in extortion conspiracies with government officials and held that anyone — even the bribe payor — who has conspired to engage in extortion can be charged for violation of the Hobbs Act, the federal statute that federal prosecutors use to indict state officials who solicit and take bribes, and can be convicted of conspiracy. In doing so, the Supreme Court has given federal prosecutors a new, and potent, weapon.

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