POLITICS

Supreme Court Rules Against Corrupt Baltimore Cop Snagged In Major Kickback Scheme

The officer had argued that, under federal law, he had never conspired with anyone.
Several Baltimore police officers conspired to send vehicles from accident scenes to a local auto repair shop. All but one pl
Several Baltimore police officers conspired to send vehicles from accident scenes to a local auto repair shop. All but one pleaded guilty to multiple federal extortion charges. Above, protesters march in support of Maryland's announcement that Baltimore police officers would be charged in the May 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a Baltimore police officer's plea to overturn his federal conspiracy conviction -- the latest development in one of the worst cases of corruption in the history of the city's police department.

The Majestic Auto Repair Shop saga, as the case is known, revealed problems within the force so widespread that the police chief himself led the dramatic initial round of arrests.

The scheme seemed lifted straight from "The Wire": Majestic's owners conspired with several members of the police department to funnel more customers to the struggling business. Every time the shop got a vehicle referral from the police, the cops would get a cut of the profits.

Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the lead opinion in the case, broke down this arrangement in no uncertain terms.

"Because police are often among the first to arrive at the scene of an accident, the Baltimore officers were well positioned to route damaged vehicles to Majestic," he wrote. "As a result, the kickback scheme was highly successful: It substantially increased Majestic’s volume of business and profits, and by early 2011 it provided Majestic with at least 90% of its customers."

Nearly everyone ensnared in the ring pleaded guilty to multiple federal extortion charges, except Samuel Ocasio, the lonely holdout. The officer insisted on a trial. A jury convicted him anyway -- of three bribery charges and an extra count of federal conspiracy.

Curiously, Ocasio didn't contest his bribery convictions, only the conspiracy one. His argument, in essence, was that he never conspired with anyone, because conspiring to extort money from someone necessarily requires an innocent victim to extort from.

Since Ocasio's buddies at Majestic were just as guilty as he was in the whole scheme, he urged the Supreme Court to toss the conspiracy conviction. On a 5-to-3 vote, the Supreme Court said no.

"Under longstanding principles of conspiracy law, a defendant may be convicted of conspiring to violate [federal anti-extortion law] based on proof that he entered into a conspiracy that had as its objective the obtaining of property from another conspirator with his consent and under color of official right," Alito wrote for the court, premised on "basic principles of conspiracy law." 

Notably, the justices were far from united. Alito led a mostly liberal majority, while Justice Stephen Breyer joined that group but wrote separately to question whether "extortion" and "bribery" should even be considered equal under the law. Justice Clarence Thomas, for his part, dissented alone, as he tends to do.

The big surprise was the rare alliance between Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts, who rallied against the larger policy issues with federal conspiracy law -- often decried for sweeping too broadly.

"Conspiracy has long been criticized as vague and elastic, fitting whatever a prosecutor needs in a given case," Sotomayor wrote, as she pointed to the problem of extending "the already pervasive and wide-sweeping nets of conspiracy prosecutions."

Maybe the discord among the justices is a harbinger of what's to come in another high-profile corruption case: that of convicted Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, which the court heard last week. Time will tell.

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