WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether federal prosecutors overstepped their authority when they charged a Baltimore police officer with conspiracy to extort for his role in a kickback scheme involving an auto repair shop.
Samuel Ocasio was one of several police officers who encouraged people involved in car accidents to get their vehicles fixed at Majestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale, a Baltimore suburb. In return, the shop owners, brothers Hernan Moreno and Edwin Mejia, paid the officers between $150 and $300 per referral.
After Ocasio was arrested in 2011, he was convicted of four charges, three of extortion and one of conspiracy, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The two brothers pleaded guilty and testified at Ocasio’s trial.
The nine Supreme Court justices appeared divided on Tuesday as they debated whether Ocasio should have been convicted of the conspiracy charge. Ocasio’s lawyers say the legal definition of the crime does not cover payments or exchanges of property among co-conspirators. In Ocasio’s case, he received payments from the shop owners, who were part of the enterprise, not from members of the public.
Justice Elena Kagan appeared to back the prosecutors, saying that “in the normal way that conspiracy law works, there is a conspiracy here.”
Other justices seemed to question whether the case against Ocasio was an example of a trend critics have described as “over-criminalization” in which prosecutors stretch the definition of criminal laws to secure more convictions.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether people could get prosecuted for apparently innocent conduct under the same theory the government used against Ocasio. Breyer said Ocasio was essentially asking the court: “Don’t make a bad situation worse.”
The National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys said in court papers backing Ocasio that federal prosecutors interpret the extortion law in such a way that almost anyone accused of extortion could also charged with conspiracy.
The federal extortion law, known as the Hobbs Act, “has been transformed into a vague, expansive criminal statute with draconian penalties,” the association said.
The court’s ruling, due by the end of June, will not directly affect Ocasio’s other convictions.
The case is Ocasio v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-361.
Editing by Will Dunham