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High court throws out attempted extortion conviction

Mistakes in judgment, or mistakes on paper, may lead to a white collar crime investigation—and potential criminal charges. But, mistakes in bringing a criminal charge may also occur. Our system of justice includes the presumption of innocence for a reason.

A person suspected of a crime has the right to challenge the charges on the law, as well as on the facts. But, legal issues can be complex and occasionally, arguments presented in the trial court need to be considered in a higher court.

On the final day of the session this year the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in a white-collar crime case in which a man was convicted by a jury of attempted extortion under the Hobb’s Act. However, he had objected to the charges in the trial court, essentially arguing that prosecutors had overreached in bringing the charges in the first place.

The short-form version of the facts involves government allegations that the man threatened an attorney for a state office, hoping that the lawyer would change his mind over an investment deal being considered by the state office. The defendant was an investment manager.

Prosecutors alleged that when the lawyer recommended that the state office not invest in a fund managed by the firm, the investment manager sent the lawyer anonymous emails threatening to expose an alleged extramarital affair if the lawyer failed to change the investment recommendation.

The investment manager was convicted of attempted extortion (and other offenses). The case went to the nation’s highest court. The justices ruled unanimously that the man’s argument that the allegations could not result in a conviction at all was valid.

The high court says that the statute defines extortion as wrongly obtaining property of another through some form of force or threat. The criminal defense to the charge was that no property changed hands (or could have changed hands under the allegations) and therefore the state could not prove extortion under the Hobb’s Act.

The court found that the man’s recommendation to the state office does not come close to the idea of property as defined in the statute. The ruling overturned the conviction and criminal sentence for the alleged white collar crime.

Source: Albany Times Union, “U.S. Supreme Court says threat to OSC officer wasn’t extortion,” Robert Gavin, June 27, 2013; United States Supreme Court, “Sekhar v, United States No, 12-357, June 26, 2013

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