Russello v. United States

Citation78 L.Ed.2d 17,464 U.S. 16,104 S.Ct. 296
Decision Date01 November 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-472,82-472
PartiesJoseph C. RUSSELLO, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

464 U.S. 16
104 S.Ct. 296
78 L.Ed.2d 17
Joseph C. RUSSELLO, Petitioner



No. 82-472.
Argued Oct. 5, 1983.
Decided Nov. 1, 1983.

Petitioner was convicted in Federal District Court, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) chapter of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, of violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 1962(c) and (d) by being involved in an arson ring that resulted in his fraudulently receiving insurance proceeds in payment for the fire loss of a building he owned. The District Court also entered a judgment of forfeiture against petitioner for the amount of the insurance proceeds pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1963(a)(1), which provides that a person convicted under § 1962 shall forfeit to the United States "any interest he has acquired or maintained in violation of § 1962." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The insurance proceeds petitioner received as a result of his arson activities constitute an "interest" within the meaning of § 1963(a)(1) and are therefore subject to forfeiture. Pp. 20 -29.

(a) Section 1963(a)(1) does not reach only "interests in an enterprise." Where the term "interest" is not specifically defined in the RICO statute, it is assumed that the legislative purpose is expressed by the term's ordinary meaning, which comprehends all forms of real and personal property, including profits and proceeds. Congress apparently selected the broad term "interest" because it did not wish the forfeiture provision to be limited by rigid and technical definitions drawn from other areas of law and because the term was fully consistent with the RICO statute's pattern in utilizing broad terms and concepts. Every property interest, including a right to profits or proceeds, may be described as an interest in something. Before profits of an illegal enterprise are divided, each participant may be said to own an "interest" in the ill-gotten gains, and after distribution each has a possessory interest in currency or other items so distributed. Pp. 20 -22.

(b) Had Congress intended to restrict § 1963(a)(1) to an interest in an enterprise, it presumably would have done so expressly as it did in § 1963(a)(2). To construe § 1963(a)(1) to reach only interests in an enterprise would blunt the section's effectiveness in combating illegitimate enterprises and would mean that whole areas of organized crime activity would be placed beyond the reach of the RICO statute. Pp. 22-24.

(c) The fact that the Controlled Substances Act specifically authorizes the forfeiture of "profits" obtained in illegal drug enterprises cannot be read as imposing a limitation upon § 1963(a)(1)'s broader language, par-

Page 17

ticularly where the RICO statute was aimed at organized crime's economic power in all its forms, whereas the narcotics activity proscribed by the Controlled Substances Act usually generates only monetary profits. Pp. 24-25.

(d) Nor is a limiting construction of § 1963(a)(1) supported by the fact that certain state racketeering statutes expressly provide for the forfeiture of "profits," "money," "interest or property," or "all property, real or personal," acquired from racketeering, since those States presumably used such language so as to avoid narrow interpretations of their laws such as was given the federal statute in certain Federal District Court opinions. P. 26.

(e) The legislative history clearly demonstrates that the RICO statute was intended to provide new weapons of unprecedented scope for an assault upon organized crime and its economic roots, and thus was intended to authorize forfeiture of racketeering profits. The rule of lenity does not apply here, where § 1963(a)(1)'s language is clear. Pp. 26-29.

681 F.2d 952 (5th Cir. 1982), affirmed.

Ronald A. Dion, Miami, Fla., for petitioner.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Newark, N.J., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is yet another case concerning the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) chapter of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Pub.L. 91-452, Title IX, 84 Stat. 941, as amended, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968. At issue here is the interpretation of the chapter's forfeiture provision, § 1963(a)(1), and, specifically, the meaning of the words "any interest [the defendant] has acquired . . . in violation of section 1962."


On June 8, 1977, petitioner Joseph C. Russello and others were indicted for racketeering, conspiracy, and mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1962(c) and (d), and 2. App. 5. After a jury trial in the United States District Court for

Page 18

the Middle District of Florida, petitioner was convicted as charged in four counts of the indictment. The jury then returned special verdicts for the forfeiture to the United States, under 18 U.S.C. § 1963(a), of four payments, aggregating $340,048.09, made to petitioner by a fire insurance company. App. 54-57. These verdicts related to the racketeering activities charged in the second count of the indictment under which petitioner had been convicted. The District Court, accordingly, entered a judgment of forfeiture against petitioner in that amount. Id., at 58.

Petitioner took an appeal to the former United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A panel of that court affirmed petitioner's criminal conviction, United States v. Martino, 648 F.2d 367, 406 (1981), and this Court denied certiorari, 456 U.S. 943, 102 S.Ct. 2006, 72 L.Ed.2d 465 (1982), as to that aspect of the case. The panel, however, reversed the judgment of forfeiture. App. 64-69. The full court granted rehearing en banc on the forfeiture issue and, by a vote of 16-7, vacated that portion of the panel opinion, and then affirmed the forfeiture judgment entered by the District Court. 681 F.2d 952 (1982). Because of this significant division among the judges of the Court of Appeals, and because the Fifth Circuit majority, id., at 959, stated that its holding "squarely conflict[ed]" with that of the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Marubeni America Corp., 611 F.2d 763 (1980), we granted certiorari. --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. ----, 77 L.Ed.2d ---- (1983).1 Since then, the Seventh Circuit has issued an opinion agreeing with the Ninth Circuit. United States v. McManigal, 708 F.2d 276, 283-287 (1983).

Page 19


So far as the case in its present posture is concerned, the basic facts are not in dispute. The majority opinion of the en banc court described them succinctly:

"Briefly, the evidence showed that a group of individuals associated for the purposes of committing arson with the intent to defraud insurance companies. This association in fact enterprise, composed of an insurance adjuster, homeowners, promoters, investors, and arsonists, operated to destroy properties in Tampa and Miami, Florida between July 1973 and April 1976. The panel summarized the ring's operations as follows:

'At first the arsonists only burned buildings already owned by those associated with the ring. Following a burning, the building owner filed an inflated proof of loss statement and collected the insurance proceeds from which his co-conspirators were paid. Later, ring members bought buildings suitable for burning, secured insurance in excess of value and, after a burning, made claims for the loss and divided the proceeds' (footnote omitted)." 681 F.2d, at 953.

Specifically, petitioner was the owner of the Central Professional Building in Tampa. This structure had two parts, an original smaller section in front and a newer addition at the rear. The latter contained apartments, offices, and parking facilities. Petitioner arranged for arsonists to set fire to the front portion. He intended to use the insurance proceeds to rebuild that section. The fire, however, spread to the rear. Joseph Carter, another member of the arson ring, was the adjuster for petitioner's insurance claim and helped him to obtain the highest payments possible. The resulting payments made up the aggregate sum of $340,043.09

Page 20

mentioned above. From those proceeds, petitioner paid Carter $30,000 for his assistance.


Title 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c) states that it shall be unlawful "for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate . . . commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise's affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt." Section 1962(d) makes it unlawful to conspire to violate § 1962(c). Section 1963(a)(1) provides that a person convicted under § 1962 shall forfeit to the United States "any interest he has acquired or maintained in violation of section 1962."

The sole issue in this case is whether profits and proceeds derived from racketeering constitute an "interest" within the meaning of this statute and are therefore subject to forfeiture. Petitioner contends that § 1963(a)(1) reaches only "interests in an enterprise" and does not authorize the forfeiture of mere "profits and proceeds." He rests his argument upon the propositions that criminal forfeitures are disfavored in law and that forfeiture statutes, as a consequence, must be strictly construed.

In a RICO case recently decided, this Court observed: "In determining the scope of a statute, we look first to its language. If the statutory language is unambiguous, in the absence of 'a clearly expressed legislative intent to the contrary, that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive.' " United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576, 580, 101 S.Ct. 2524, 2527, 69 L.Ed.2d 246 (1981), quoting from Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 100 S.Ct. 2051, 2056, 64 L.Ed.2d 766 (1980). See, also, Dickerson v. New Banner Institute, Inc., --- U.S. ----, ----, 103 S.Ct. 986, 990, 74 L.Ed.2d 845; Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55, 60, 100 S.Ct. 915, 918, 63 L.Ed.2d 198 (1980).

Here, 18 U.S.C....

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