WASHINGTON -- A former Baltimore cop ensnared in a kickback scheme involving dozens of his colleagues wants the Supreme Court to throw out his conspiracy conviction.
His argument is a curious one: He never conspired with anyone. At least not in the way federal law contemplates.
The court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in Ocasio v. United States, the first criminal case on the docket for its new term, which kicked off on Monday with hearings on two low-profile cases and the adoption of new measures responding to criticism of prior court practices.
The Ocasio case is unique in that it brings one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Baltimore to the marble hall of the Supreme Court chamber. Not even The Baltimore Sun -- with its history of covering bad cops -- could find a worse case of "systemic corruption" than the operation that resulted in federal prosecutions for Ocasio and many other officers.
The case started as a classic kickback ploy: Samuel Ocasio and number of city officers developed an arrangement with Majestic Auto Repair, consisting of vehicle referrals whenever the officers responded to the scene of an accident.
In exchange for the referrals, Majestic owners Alexis Moreno and Edwin Mejia would pay the officers between $150 and $300 each. Eventually, up to 90 percent of Majestic's business came from the referring officers, according to the federal government. The plot led to an internal investigation by the police department and the FBI, and federal charges soon followed for all the cops involved.
The scandal reached a dramatic climax when the Baltimore police commissioner at the time, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, took it upon himself to make the arrests in the case, telling the officers who were charged, "I'm here to reclaim our badge."
As is often the case with Supreme Court cases, none of that sensational backstory was included in oral arguments on Tuesday. The justices never explicitly addressed it.
Instead, the justices addressed a very specific question raised by Ocasio, who got lucky and convinced them to take his case to begin with. Challenging his conviction for federal conspiracy, he asked them to resolve whether his kickback deal with Majestic indeed counted as one.
To the layperson, the question would seem like a no-brainer. But in criminal law, a conspiracy -- legalese for an agreement to do something illegal -- requires an underlying criminal act, like robbing a bank.
In Ocasio's case, the underlying criminal act is federal extortion, defined as "obtaining property from another" by resorting to the wrongful use of force and one's position of authority.
Ocasio didn't dispute that he committed extortion by getting kickbacks from Majestic. But through his lawyers, he told the Supreme Court that his conspiracy conviction should be thrown out because it made no sense that he would conspire with the auto body shop owners to obtain property "from another" -- that is, from someone outside the conspiracy -- when the kickbacks came from within: his co-conspirators at Majestic.
If your head is spinning a bit, don't worry, because the justices spent an hour grilling lawyers representing Ocasio and the federal government to get to the bottom of whether this "from another" language could refer to people inside the conspiracy.
And for the most part, it looks like Ocasio is on the losing end. Not because the justices thought his argument lacked merit -- at one point, Justice Antonin Scalia wondered whether his reading of federal law would create "a national bribery law." But mostly, the justices seemed to signal a willingness to read the extortion statute broadly to include the kinds of arrangements Ocasio and his cohorts were charged with.
Justice Elena Kagan gave play to that line of thinking when she wondered whether the fact that police officers were extorting property from another -- no matter if it was from a co-conspirator -- meant that the "real crime was to the public at large." Of all the justices, she seemed the most convinced that this was an easy case for the government.
But others weren't so sure. Justice Stephen Breyer worried that a win for federal prosecutors would vastly expand their power and "make a bad situation worse," by "federalizing" a type of crime that really should remain at the state level. He called that a "practical argument" that should be given weight.
Curiously, Ocasio got an assist on that very point from an unlikely source. In court papers filed ahead of Tuesday's hearing, a group of former federal prosecutors urged the justices to reverse the ex-cop’s conviction not based on innocence, but because prosecutors pushed the law of conspiracy too far to get him convicted.
“Near the top of the list … prosecutors must enforce statutes only within the bounds that Congress has authorized; this is indispensable for proving the legitimacy of the resulting prosecutions," the former prosecutors said. "Stretching beyond statutory bounds constitutes prosecutorial overreach."
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the Ocasio case sometime before June.
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