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

Docket NºNo. 51
Citation393 U.S. 286, 89 S.Ct. 534, 21 L.Ed.2d 487
Party NameUnited States v. Nardello
Case DateJanuary 13, 1969
CourtUnited 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 Judiciary Committee on the Attorney General's Program to Curb Organized Crime and Racketeering, 87th Cong., 1st Sess. (1961). The Attorney General told the Senate Committee that the purpose of the Travel Act was to aid local law enforcement officials. In many instances the "top men" of a given criminal operation resided in one State but conducted their illegal activities in another; by creating a federal interest in limiting the interstate movement necessary to such operations, criminal conduct beyond the reach of local officials could be

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controlled. Id. at 15-17.7 The Attorney General's concerns were reflected in the Senate Committee Report favoring adoption of the Travel Act. The Report, after noting the Committee's belief that local law enforcement efforts would be enhanced by the Travel Act, quoted from the Attorney General's submission letter:

Over the years, an ever-increasing portion of our national resources has been diverted into illicit channels. Because many rackets are conducted by highly organized syndicates whose influence extends over State and National borders, the Federal Government should come to the aid of local law enforcement authorities in an effort to stem such activity.

S.Rep. No. 644, 87th Cong., 1st Sess., 4 (1961). The measure was passed by the Senate, and subsequently became § 1952.8

The House version of the Travel Act contained an amendment unacceptable to the Justice Department. The Senate bill defined "unlawful activity" as

any business enterprise involving gambling, liquor . . . narcotics, or prostitution offenses in violation of the laws of the State . . . or . . . extortion or bribery in violation of the laws of the States.

S.Rep. No. 644, 87th Cong., 1st Sess., 2 (1961). However, the House amendment, by defining "unlawful activity" as

any business enterprise involving gambling, liquor, narcotics, or prostitution offenses or extortion or bribery in connection with such offenses in violation of the laws of the State,

required that extortion be connected with a business enterprise involving the other enumerated offenses. H.R.Rep.

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No. 966, 87th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1961). In a letter to the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department objected that the House amendment eliminated from coverage of the Travel Act offenses such as "shakedown rackets," "shylocking" and labor extortion which were traditional sources of income for organized crime.9 The House-Senate Conference Committee accepted the Senate version. See H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 1161, 87th Cong., 1st Sess. (1961).

The Travel Act, primarily designed to stem the "clandestine flow of profits" and to be of "material assistance to the States in combating pernicious undertakings which cross State lines,"10 thus reflects a congressional judgment that certain activities of organized crime which were violative of state law had become a national problem. The legislative response was to be commensurate with the scope of the problem. Appellees suggest, however, that Congress intended that the common law meaning of extortion -- corrupt acts by a public official -- be retained. If Congress so intended, then § 1952 would cover extortionate acts only when the extortionist was

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also a public official. Not only would such a construction conflict with the congressional desire to curb the activities of organized crime, rather than merely organized criminals who were also public officials, but also § 1952...

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