Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Harris: Upholding Hobbs Act Extortion Conviction of Former Prison Guard

In United States v. Harris, No. 18-12418 (Feb. 19, 2018) (William Pryor, Rosenbaum, Conway), the Court affirmed the defendant's conviction for Hobbs Act extortion.

First, the Court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the extortion conviction of the defendant, a former prison guard who discovered and then appropriated for himself a phone scam in which inmates were posing as government agents and tricking victims into paying fake fines in the form of prepaid debit-card numbers.  The defendant argued that the government failed to prove that he obtained the debit card numbers with the "consent" of the inmates, a required element of extortion, because the inmates had no choice but to turn over the numbers.  After an historical overview of the crime of extortion, the Court explained that "consent" in that context did not require such a degree of voluntariness; rather, a victim consents so long as he retains some degree of choice, even if it is a Hobson's choice.  Here, sufficient evidence showed that the inmates consented to the defendant taking their numbers without reporting him so as to avoid implicating themselves in the scam or possessing contraband.  The Court also found sufficient evidence that the defendant wrongfully used fear, one of the alternative means of extortion.

Second, the Court found that the district court did not violate the defendant's right to present a complete defense by limiting his closing argument.  Specifically, the court preventing him from arguing that, although he might have committed theft, he did not commit extortion.  The court, however, did permit him to argue that, while he may have been guilty of some crime, he was not guilty of extortion.  The court did not abuse its discretion by precluding the defendant from arguing that the government should have charged him with theft, as that risk confusing the jury.  And if the jury did not believe he committed extortion, it would have acquitted him.