U.S. News

U.S. top court upholds cop's conviction in auto repair scheme

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a Baltimore cop’s conspiracy conviction involving an auto repair shop extortion operation in a ruling that could boost the power of federal prosecutors to pursue charges against public officials.

The court ruled 5-3 against Samuel Ocasio, one of several police officers who referred motorists 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.

Ocasio was convicted in 2012 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 court rejected the argument by Ocasio’s lawyers that the legal definition of the conspiracy charge did not cover payments or exchanges of property among co-conspirators. Ocasio received payments from the shop owners, who were part of the enterprise, not from members of the public.

Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Samuel Alito said prosecutors did not have to show that each member of a conspiracy agreed to commit each individual element of the extortion plan.

“In other words, each conspirator must have specifically intended that some conspirator commit each element of the substantive offense. That is exactly what happened here,” Alito said.

The court was not split on ideological lines, with Alito’s fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting along with liberal Sonia Sotomayor.

Thomas wrote in his dissent that the court had broadened the reach of the federal extortion law “to enable federal prosecutors to punish for conspiracy all participants in a public-official bribery scheme.”

Prosecutors will have more leverage to convince defendants to plead guilty because they can charge them with conspiracy in addition to other counts, Thomas said.

Just last week, the court appeared headed in the opposite direction regarding the reach of federal prosecutors when it heard former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s appeal of his corruption convictions.

That case focuses on a different legal issue, concerning the definition of an “official act” for which an official can be prosecuted if they receive payment in return. Several justices in that case questioned the power prosecutors have to pursue charges against public officials, indicating they would rule in favor of McDonnell.

Monday’s ruling suggested the justices are more comfortable with a broad interpretation of conspiracy than of an “official act,” said Timothy O’Toole, a white collar criminal defense lawyer in Washington.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham