393 U.S. 286 (1969), 51, United States v. Nardello

Docket Nº:No. 51
Citation:393 U.S. 286, 89 S.Ct. 534, 21 L.Ed.2d 487
Party Name:United States v. Nardello
Case Date:January 13, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 286

393 U.S. 286 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 534, 21 L.Ed.2d 487

United States



No. 51

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1969

Argued November 12, 1968




Appellees were indicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 1952, which prohibits travel in interstate commerce with intent to carry on "extortion" in violation of the laws of the State in which committed. In Pennsylvania, where the acts were allegedly committed, the statute entitled "extortion" applies only to public officials, while other statutes prohibit various aspects of "blackmail." The "blackmail" laws, which cover appellees' alleged activities, each define the offense as an act committed with intent "to extort." The District Court, believing that the term extortion was intended "to track closely the legal understanding under state law," concluded that the offense of extortion could only be committed by public officials, and dismissed the indictment against appellees, who were not public officials. The Government appealed.

Held: In light of the congressional purpose to assist local law enforcement officials in combating interstate activities of organized crime which violate state laws, and not merely to eliminate only those acts which a State has denominated extortion, the extortionate acts for which appellees were indicted, which were prohibited by Pennsylvania law, fall within the generic term "extortion" as used in 18 U.S.C. § 1952. Pp. 289-296.

278 F.Supp. 711, reversed and remanded.

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WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal presents solely a question of statutory construction: whether 18 U.S.C. § 1952,1 prohibiting travel in interstate commerce with intent to carry on "extortion" in violation of the laws of the State in which committed, applies to extortionate conduct classified as "blackmail", rather than "extortion" in the applicable state penal code. We believe that § 1952 (hereinafter "the Travel Act") is applicable, and thus must reverse the court below.

Appellees were indicted under § 1952 for their alleged participation in a "shakedown" operation whereby individuals would be lured into a compromising homosexual situation and then threatened with exposure unless appellees' silence was purchased. The indictments charged that appellees traveled in interstate commerce

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on three separate occasions, twice from New Jersey to Philadelphia and once from Chicago to Philadelphia, to promote their activities. Specifically, the indictments referred to "the unlawful activity of blackmail, in violation of the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed the indictments, basing its decision upon Pennsylvania statutes which classify certain acts as "extortion" and others as various aspects of "blackmail." In Pennsylvania, the statute entitled "extortion" is applicable only to the conduct of public officials. Pa.Stat.Ann., Tit. 18, § 4318 (1963). Three other Pennsylvania statutes, Pa.Stat.Ann., Tit. 18, §§ 4801-14803 (1963), prohibit "blackmail," "blackmail by injury to reputation or business," and "blackmail by accusation of heinous crime." Each of these three statutes defines the prohibited offense as, inter alia, an act committed with an intent "to extort." The District Court believed that the term extortion as used in the Travel Act was intended "to track closely the legal understanding under state law." 278 F.Supp. 711, 712 (1968). [89 S.Ct. 536] Reasoning from this premise, the court concluded that, in Pennsylvania the offense of extortion was covered only by Pa.Stat.Ann., Tit. 18, § 4318, a statute which required that the accused be a public official. Since appellees were not public officials, the indictment was therefore defective.2 The United States appealed directly

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to this Court pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731, and probable jurisdiction was noted. 392 U.S. 923 (1968).

Although Congress directed that content should be given to the term "extortion" in § 1952 by resort to state law, it otherwise left that term undefined.3 At common law, a public official who, under color of office, obtained the property of another not due either to the office or the official was guilty of extortion.4 In many States, however, the crime of extortion has been statutorily expanded to include acts by private individuals under which property is obtained by means of force, fear, or threats. See Cal.Penal Code § 519 (1955); N.J.Stat.Ann. § 2A:105-3, § 2A:105 (1953); 3 F. Wharton's Criminal Law and Procedure § 1396 (R. Anderson ed.1957). Others, such as Pennsylvania, retain the common law definition of extortion but prohibit conduct for which appellees were charged under other statutes.5 At least one State does not denominate any

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specific act as extortion, but prohibits appellees' type of activities under the general heading of offenses directed against property. See Ill.Rev.Stat., c.38, § 15-5 (1967).

Faced with this diversity, appellees contend alternatively that Congress intended either that extortion was to be applied in its common law sense or that, where a State does have a statute specifically prohibiting extortion, then that statute alone is encompassed by § 1952. The Government, on the other hand, suggests that Congress intended that extortion should refer to those acts prohibited by state law which would be generically classified as extortionate, i.e., obtaining something of value from another with his consent induced by the wrongful use of force, fear, or threats.6

[89 S.Ct. 537] The Travel Act formed part of Attorney General Kennedy's legislative proposals to combat organized crime. See Hearings on S. 1653-1658, S. 1665 before the Senate...

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