Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mayweather: Reversing Convictions for Hobbs Act Extortion and Remanding for New Trial

In United States v. Mayweather, No. 17-13547 (Mar. 17, 2021) (Branch, Tjoflat, Ed Carnes), the Court reversed convictions for Hobbs Act extortion and remanded for a new trial.  

The case stems from a large-scale FBI sting operation in response to concerns that there were Georgia Department of Corrections ("GDC") officers accepting bribes to smuggle contraband into prison.  The FBI arranged for an undercover informant to set up fake drug deals with uniformed corrections officers outside of the prison walls.  The corrections officers were instructed to wear their GDC uniforms as they transported the drugs with the expectation that police officers would not stop or detain them as a professional courtesy.  As a result, the defendants in this case were charged with, among other charges, Hobbs Act extortion.  

Defendants sought to present the jury with an entrapment instruction, which the district court denied.  The defendants also asked that the court provide the jury with the pattern Hobbs Act jury instruction updated post-McDonnell v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2355 (2016), and to provide the jury with a definition of "official act," which the court also denied.  This appeal followed. 

The Court found that the district court erred on both its failure to give an entrapment jury instruction and to provide the jury with a definition of "official act."  As to the entrapment jury instruction, the Court clarified that to determine whether a defendant has produced enough evidence to merit an entrapment defense and jury instruction, a court need look only at whether there was sufficient evidence produced to raise the issue of government inducement, and not at whether the defendants were actually entrapped, which is a jury question.  With that in mind, the Court found that two of the four defendants had met their burden of production as to inducement, and therefore were entitled to an entrapment defense jury instruction.  The district court's failure to give the instruction resulted in reversible error, not harmless error.  The Court also rejected the government's contention that the defendants, having been recruited by other codefendants rather than a government agent, could at most claim only derivative entrapment, which the Eleventh Circuit does not recognize.    

As to the Hobbs Act extortion instruction, the Court first noted that the government bears the burden of proving that defendants took or agreed to take an "official act" to meet their burden of proving Hobbs Act extortion.  The Court then held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to give the post-McDonnell pattern jury instruction because that instruction could have been misleading to the jury on the particular facts of this case.

The Court held, however, that the district court was required to define "official act" in the charge it provided the jury because the government's definition of "official act" was too expansive, and therefore made it difficult for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited.  The district court's failure to do so was reversible error because a reasonable likelihood exists that the jury applied the instruction given in an improper manner.