Sekhar v. United States
570 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 12–357

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GIRIDHAR C. SEKHAR, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

[June 26, 2013]

     Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

     We consider whether attempting to compel a person to recommend that his employer approve an investment con- stitutes “the obtaining of property from another” under 18 U. S. C. §1951(b)(2).

I

     New York’s Common Retirement Fund is an employee pension fund for the State of New York and its local governments. As sole trustee of the Fund, the State Comptroller chooses Fund investments. When the Comptroller decides to approve an investment he issues a “Commitment.” A Commitment, however, does not actually bind the Fund. For that to happen, the Fund and the recipient of the investment must enter into a limited partnership agreement. 683 F. 3d 436, 438 (CA2 2012).

     Petitioner Giridhar Sekhar was a managing partner of FA Technology Ventures. In October 2009, the Comptroller’s office was considering whether to invest in a fund managed by that firm. The office’s general counsel made a written recommendation to the Comptroller not to invest in the fund, after learning that the Office of the New York Attorney General was investigating another fund managed by the firm. The Comptroller decided not to issue a Commitment and notified a partner of FA Technology Ventures. That partner had previously heard rumors that the general counsel was having an extramarital affair.

     The general counsel then received a series of anony- mous e-mails demanding that he recommend moving for- ward with the investment and threatening, if he did not, to disclose information about his alleged affair to his wife, government officials, and the media. App. 59–61. The general counsel contacted law enforcement, which traced some of the e-mails to petitioner’s home computer and other e-mails to offices of FA Technology Ventures.

     Petitioner was indicted for, and a jury convicted him of, attempted extortion, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U. S. C. §1951(a). That Act subjects a person to criminal liability if he “in any way or degree obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do.” §1951(a). The Act defines “extortion” to mean “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” §1951(b)(2). [ 1 ] On the verdict form, the jury was asked to specify the property that petitioner attempted to extort: (1) “the Commitment”; (2) “the Comptroller’s approval of the Commitment”; or (3) “the General Counsel’s recommendation to approve the Commitment.” App. 141–142. The jury chose only the third option.

     The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the conviction. The court held that the general counsel “had a property right in rendering sound legal advice to the Comptroller and, specifically, to recommend—free from threats—whether the Comptroller should issue a Commitment for [the funds].” 683 F. 3d, at 441. The court concluded that petitioner not only attempted to deprive the general counsel of his “property right,” but that petitioner also “attempted to exercise that right by forcing the General Counsel to make a recommendation determined by [petitioner].” Id., at 442.

     We granted certiorari. 568 U. S. ___ (2013).

II

A

     Whether viewed from the standpoint of the common law, the text and genesis of the statute at issue here, or the jurisprudence of this Court’s prior cases, what was charged in this case was not extortion.

     It is a settled principle of interpretation that, absent other indication, “Congress intends to incorporate the well-settled meaning of the common-law terms it uses.” Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1, 23 (1999) .

“[W]here Congress borrows terms of art in which are accumulated the legal tradition and meaning of centuries of practice, it presumably knows and adopts the cluster of ideas that were attached to each borrowed word in the body of learning from which it was taken and the meaning its use will convey to the judicial mind unless otherwise instructed.” Morissette v. United States, 342 U. S. 246, 263 (1952) .

Or as Justice Frankfurter colorfully put it, “if a word is obviously transplanted from another legal source, whether the common law or other legislation, it brings the old soil with it.” Some Reflections on the Reading of Statutes, 47 Colum. L. Rev. 527, 537 (1947).

     The Hobbs Act punishes “extortion,” one of the oldest crimes in our legal tradition, see E. Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 148–150 (1648) (reprint 2008). The crime originally applied only to extortionate action by public officials, but was later extended by statute to private extortion. See 4 C. Torcia, Wharton’s Criminal Law §§695, 699 (14th ed. 1981). As far as is known, no case predating the Hobbs Act—English, federal, or state—ever identified conduct such as that charged here as extortionate. Extortion required the obtaining of items of value, typically cash, from the victim. See, e.g., People v. Whaley, 6 Cow. 661 (N. Y. Sup. Ct. 1827) (justice of the peace properly indicted for extorting money); Commonwealth v. Bagley, 24 Mass. 279 (1828) (officer properly convicted for demanding a fee for letting a man out of prison); Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 66 Ky. 25 (1867) (jailer properly indicted for extorting money from pris- oner); Queen v. Woodward, 11 Mod. 137, 88 Eng. Rep. 949 (K. B. 1707) (upholding indictment for extorting “money and a note”). It did not cover mere coercion to act, or to refrain from acting. See, e.g., King v. Burdett, 1 Ld. Raym. 149, 91 Eng. Rep. 996 (K. B. 1696) (dictum) (extortion consisted of the “taking of money for the use of the stalls,” not the deprivation of “free liberty to sell [one’s] wares in the market according to law”).

     The text of the statute at issue confirms that the alleged property here cannot be extorted. Enacted in 1946, the Hobbs Act defines its crime of “extortion” as “the ob- taining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” 18 U. S. C. §1951(b)(2) (emphasis added). Obtaining property requires “not only the deprivation but also the acquisition of property.” Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc., 537 U. S. 393, 404 (2003) (citing United States v. Enmons, 410 U. S. 396, 400 (1973) ). That is, it requires that the victim “part with” his property, R. Perkins & R. Boyce, Criminal Law 451 (3d ed. 1982), and that the extortionist “gain possession” of it, Scheidler, supra, at 403, n. 8; see also Webster’s New International Dictionary 1682 (2d ed. 1949) (defining “obtain”); Murray, Note, Protesters, Extortion, and Coercion: Preventing RICO from Chilling First Amendment Freedoms, 75 Notre Dame L. Rev. 691, 706 (1999) (Murray). 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. [ 2 ]

     The genesis of the Hobbs Act reinforces that conclusion. The Act was modeled after §850 of the New York Penal Law (1909), which was derived from the famous Field Code, a 19th-century model penal code, see 4 Commissioners of the Code, Penal Code of the State of New York §613, p. 220 (1865) (reprint 1998). Congress borrowed, nearly verbatim, the New York statute’s definition of extortion. See Scheidler, 537 U. S., at 403. The New York statute contained, in addition to the felony crime of extortion, a new (that is to say, nonexistent at common law) misdemeanor crime of coercion. Whereas the former required, as we have said, “ ‘the criminal acquisition of . . . property,’ ” ibid., the latter required merely the use of threats “to compel another person to do or to abstain from doing an act which such other such person has a legal right to do or to abstain from doing.” N. Y. Penal Law §530 (1909), earlier codified in N. Y. Penal Code §653 (1881). Congress did not copy the coercion provision. The omission must have been deliberate, since it was perfectly clear that extortion did not include coercion. At the time of the borrowing (1946), New York courts had consistently held that the sort of interference with rights that occurred here was coercion. See, e.g., People v. Ginsberg, 262 N. Y. 556, 188 N. E. 62 (1933) (per curiam) (compelling store owner to become a member of a trade association and to remove advertisements); People v. Scotti, 266 N. Y. 480, 195 N. E. 162 (App. Div. 1934) (compelling victim to enter into agreement with union); People v. Kaplan, 240 App. Div. 72, 74–75, 269 N. Y. S. 161, 163–164, aff’d, 264 N. Y. 675, 191 N. E. 621 (1934) (compelling union members to drop lawsuits against union leadership). [ 3 ]

     And finally, this Court’s own precedent similarly demands reversal of petitioner’s convictions. In Scheidler, we held that protesters did not commit extortion under the Hobbs Act, even though they “interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived” abortion clinics of their ability to run their business. 537 U. S., at 404–405. We reasoned that the protesters may have deprived the clinics of an “alleged property right,” but they did not pursue or receive “ ‘something of value from’ ” the clinics that they could then “exercise, transfer, or sell” themselves. Id., at 405. The opinion supported its holding by citing the three New York coercion cases discussed above. See id., at 405–406.

     This case is easier than Scheidler, where one might at least have said that physical occupation of property amounted to obtaining that property. The deprivation alleged here is far more abstract. Scheidler rested its decision, as we do, on the term “obtaining.” Id., at 402, n. 6. The principle announced there—that a defendant must pursue something of value from the victim that can be exercised, transferred, or sold—applies with equal force here. [ 4 ] Whether one considers the personal right at issue to be “property” in a broad sense or not, it certainly was not obtainable property under the Hobbs Act. [ 5 ]

B

     The Government’s shifting and imprecise characterization of the alleged property at issue betrays the weakness of its case. According to the jury’s verdict form, the “property” that petitioner attempted to extort was “the General Counsel’s recommendation to approve the Commitment.” App. 142. But the Government expends minuscule effort in defending that theory of conviction. And for good reason—to wit, our decision in Cleveland v. United States, 531 U. S. 12 (2000) , which reversed a business owner’s mail-fraud conviction for “obtaining money or property” through misrepresentations made in an application for a video-poker license issued by the State. We held that a “license” is not “property” while in the State’s hands and so cannot be “obtained” from the State. Id., at 20–22. Even less so can an employee’s yet-to-be-issued recommendation be called obtainable property, and less so still a yet-to-be-issued recommendation that would merely ap- prove (but not effect) a particular investment.

     Hence the Government’s reliance on an alternative, more sophisticated (and sophistic) description of the property. Instead of defending the jury’s description, the Gov- ernment hinges its case on the general counsel’s “intangible property right to give his disinterested legal opinion to his client free of improper outside interference.” Brief for United States 39. But what, exactly, would the petitioner have obtained for himself? A right to give his own disinterested legal opinion to his own client free of improper interference? Or perhaps, a right to give the general counsel’s disinterested legal opinion to the general counsel’s client?

     Either formulation sounds absurd, because it is. Clearly, petitioner’s goal was not to acquire the general coun- sel’s “intangible property right to give disinterested legal advice.” It was to force the general counsel to offer advice that accorded with petitioner’s wishes. But again, that is coercion, not extortion. See Murray 721–722. 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 counsel to make a particular recommendation,” just as he would say that a person “forced another to make a statement.” Adopting the Government’s theory here would not only make nonsense of words; it would collapse the longstanding distinction between extortion and coercion and ignore Congress’s choice to penalize one but not the other. See Scheidler, supra, at 409. That we cannot do.

     The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Notes

1  Petitioner was also convicted of several counts of interstate transmission of extortionate threats, in violation of . Under §875(d), a person is criminally liable if he, “with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee.” In this case, both parties concede that the definition of “extortion” under the Hobbs Act also applies to the §875(d) counts. We express no opinion on the validity of that concession.
2  It may well be proper under the Hobbs Act for the Government to charge a person who obtains money by threatening a third party, who obtains funds belonging to a corporate or governmental entity by threatening the entity’s agent, see 2 J. Bishop, Criminal Law §408, p. 334, and n. 3 (9th ed. 1923) (citing State v. Moore, 1 Ind. 548 (1849)), or who obtains “goodwill and customer revenues” by threatening a market competitor, see, e.g., United States v. Zemek, 634 F. 2d 1159, 1173 (CA9 1980). Each of these might be considered “obtaining property from another.” We need not consider those situations, however, because the Government did not charge any of them here.
3  Also revealing, the New York code prohibited conspiracy “[t]o prevent another from exercising a lawful trade or calling, or doing any other lawful act, by force, threats, intimidation.” N. Y. Penal Law §580(5) (1909) (emphasis added). That separate codification, which Con-gress did not adopt, is further evidence that the New York crime of extortion (and hence the federal crime) did not reach interference with a person’s right to ply a lawful trade, similar to the right claimed here. Seeking to extract something from the void, the Government relies on cases that interpret a provision of the New York code definingthe kinds of threats that qualify as threats to do “unlawful injury to the person or property,” which is what the extortion statute requires. See N. Y. Penal Code §553 (1881); N. Y. Penal Law §851 (1909). Those cases held that they include threats to injure a business by preventing the return of workers from a strike, People v. Barondess, 133 N. Y. 649, 31 N. E. 240, 241–242 (1892) (per curiam), and threats to terminate a person’s employment, People ex rel. Short v. Warden, 145 App. Div. 861, 130 N. Y. S. 698, 700–701 (1911), aff’d, 206 N. Y. 632, 99 N. E. 1116 (1912) (per curiam). Those cases are entirely inapposite here, where the issue is not what constitutes a qualifying threat but what constitutes obtainable property.
4  The Government’s attempt to distinguish Scheidler is unconvinc-ing. In its view, had the protesters sought to force the clinics to pro-vide services other than abortion, extortion would have been a proper charge. Petitioner committed extortion here, the Government says, because he did not merely attempt to prevent the general counsel from giving a recommendation but tried instead to force him to issue one. That distinction is, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsensical. It is coercion, not extortion, when a person is forced to do something and when he is forced to do nothing. See, e.g., N. Y. Penal Law §530 (1909) (it is a misdemeanor to coerce a “person to do or to abstain from doing an act”). Congress’s enactment of the Hobbs Act did not, through the phrase “obtaining of property from another,” suddenly transform every act that coerces affirmative conduct into a crime punishable for up to 20 years, while leaving those who “merely” coerce inaction immune from federal punishment.
5  The concurrence contends that the “right to make [a] recommendation” is not property. Post, at 4 (Alito, J., concurring in judgment). We are not sure of that. If one defines property to include anything of value, surely some rights to make recommendations would qualify—for example, a member of the Pulitzer Prize Committee’s right to recommend the recipient of the prize. I suppose that a prominent journalist would not give up that right (he cannot, of course, transfer it) for a significant sum of money—so it must be valuable. But the point relevant to the present case is that it cannot be transferred, so it cannot be the object of extortion under the statute.

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