United States v. Nardello

Decision Date13 January 1969
Docket NumberNo. 51,51
Citation393 U.S. 286,89 S.Ct. 534,21 L.Ed.2d 487
PartiesUNITED STATES, Appellant, v. Joseph Francis NARDELLO and Isadore Weisberg
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, Jr. (argued) Charles A. Peruto, Philadelphia, Pa., for appellees.

Erwin N. Griswold, Sol. Gen., Fred M. Vinson, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Philip A. Lacovara, Asst. Sol. Gen., Beatrice Rosenberg and Sidney M. Glazer, Dept. of Justice, for appellants.

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 com- merce 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 Common-wealth 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—4803 (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). 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 di- rectly to this Court pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731 and probable jurisdiction was noted. 392 U.S. 923, 88 S.Ct. 2281, 20 L.Ed.2d 1382 (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—4 (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 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

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 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 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 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 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 imposes penalties upon any individual crossing state lines or using interstate facilities for any of the statutorily enumerated offenses. The language of the Travel Act, 'whoever' crosses state lines or uses interstate facilities, includes private persons as well as public officials.11

Appellees argue that Congress' decision not to define extortion combined with its decision to prohibit only extortion in violation of state law compels the conclusion that peculiar versions of state terminology are controlling. Since in Pennsylvania a distinction is maintained between extortion and blackmail with only the latter term covering appellees' activities,12 it follows that the Travel Act does not reach the conduct charged. The fallacy of this contention lies in its assumption that, by defining extortion with reference to state law, Congress also incorporated state labels for particular offenses. Congress' intent was to aid local law enforcement offi- cials, not to eradicate only those extortionate activities which any given State denominated extortion. Indiana prohibits appellees' type of conduct under the heading of theft, Ind.Ann.Stat. § 10—3030 (Supp.1968); Kansas terms such conduct robbery in the third degree, Kan.Stat.Ann. § 21—529 (1964); Minnesota calls it coercion, Minn.Stat. § 609.27 (1967); and Wisconsin believes that it should be classified under threats, Wis.Stat. § 943.30 (1965). States such as Massachusetts, Mass.Gen.Laws Ann. c. 265, § 25 (1956), Michigan, Mich.Comp.Laws, § 750.213 (1948), Mich.Stat.Ann. § 28.410 (1962), and Oregon, Ore.Rev.Stat. § 163.480 (1968), have enacted measures covering similar activities; each of these statutes contains in its title the term extortion. Giving controlling effect to state classifications would result in coverage under § 1952 if appellees' activities were centered in Massachusetts, Michigan, or Oregon, but would deny coverage in Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, or Wisconsin although each of these States prohibits identical criminal...

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    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Central District of California
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    ...the focus of these cases on the conduct of the defendants rather than on the nature or elements of the relevant offenses is telling.8 Nardello considered whether two defendants could be prosecuted under the Travel Act for their conduct in luring individuals into compromising situations and ......
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  • Racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations.
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 46 No. 2, March 2009
    • 22 Marzo 2009
    ...petitioners did not commit extortion as defined by the Hobbs Act. Nat'l Org. for Women, 537 U.S. at 405 (citing United States v. Nardello, 393 U.S. 286, 290 (334.) Scheidler v. Nat'l Org. for Women, Inc., 547 U.S. 9 (2006). (335.) Id. at 16 (holding that "physical violence unrelated to robb......
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    • 22 Marzo 2010
    ...petitioners did not commit extortion as defined by the Hobbs Act. Nat'l Org. for Women, 537 U.S. at 405 (citing United States v. Nardello, 393 U.S. 286, 290 (338.) Scheidler v. Nat'l Org. for Women, Inc., 547 U.S. 9 (2006). (339.) Id. at 16 (holding that "physical violence unrelated to robb......
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    ...petitioners did not commit extortion as defined by the Hobbs Act. Nat'l Org. for Women, 537 U.S. at 405 (citing United States v. Nardello, 393 U.S. 286, 290 (355.) Scheidler v. Nat'l Org. for Women, Inc. (NOW II), 547 U.S. 9 (2006). (356.) Id. at 16 ("[P]hysical violence unrelated to robber......
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