US v. Blair, CR-90-0377 MHP.

Decision Date25 April 1991
Docket NumberNo. CR-90-0377 MHP.,CR-90-0377 MHP.
Citation762 F. Supp. 1384
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of California
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Ronald E. BLAIR, Defendant.

George L. Bevan, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., Organized Crime Strike Force, San Francisco, Cal., for plaintiff.

Patrick Sarsfield Hallinan, Hugh Anthony Levine, Hallinan, Poplack & Levine, San Francisco, Cal., for defendant.


PATEL, District Judge.

Defendant Ronald E. Blair ("Blair") is charged, inter alia, with one count of violating the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, in that Blair allegedly "did knowingly and intentionally obstruct and attempt to obstruct ... and affect commerce by extortion ... in that defendant obtained cash ... and other property from ... Raymond Vyeda ... under color of official right." Superseding Indictment ("Indictment") at 2. This count was severed from the remaining counts and prosecuted in a separate bench trial.

Having evaluated the evidence presented at trial, the court finds that the necessary element of obstructing and affecting interstate commerce has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The court therefore finds defendant Blair not guilty on Count One.

The court sets forth below its findings of fact and conclusions of law. To the extent that any findings are included in the conclusions or endnotes they are deemed findings of fact.


1. During 1985, Blair was employed as a deputy district attorney by the Alameda County District Attorney's office in California.

2. On June 27, 1985, Raymond Vyeda ("Vyeda"), a social and business acquaintance of Blair's, was arrested in Alameda County for possession of illegal fireworks without a license. A criminal complaint was filed against Vyeda by the Alameda County District Attorney's office.

3. Shortly after his arrest and prior to his first scheduled court appearance, Vyeda contacted Blair seeking a recommendation for a defense attorney. In the course of this and subsequent conversations, Blair discouraged Vyeda from retaining an attorney. Blair instead suggested that if Vyeda provided him with $25,000, Blair would be able to make Vyeda's fireworks charge "go away."

4. Blair was not the prosecutor assigned to Vyeda's case; Blair was working in the juvenile division of the District Attorney's office at all relevant times.

5. Vyeda agreed to Blair's proposal, and after negotiating about the amount, Vyeda eventually delivered between $12,000-$13,000 in cash to Blair, to be used by Blair to make Vyeda's case "go away." Vyeda also gave Blair four cases of liquor as part of the payment.

6. Contrary to Vyeda's expectation that Blair would funnel the money to a judge with influence over Vyeda's case, in fact Blair retained the money for his own use.

7. Although Blair kept Vyeda's money, he did work to get Vyeda's case dismissed. Blair obtained five continuances for Vyeda, the last on October 18, 1985, thereby delaying his first appearance on the fireworks case. Blair accomplished this by telephoning the assigned municipal judge's courtroom deputy, identifying himself as a deputy district attorney, and falsely stating that Vyeda needed a continuance for medical reasons. Though all five continuances were granted, the case was not dismissed.

8. In addition, on October 21, 1985, Blair met with the fire chief and a captain of the Eden Fire District, the relevant fire department in Vyeda's fireworks charge, and offered to have Vyeda make a $5,000 donation to the fire district's nonexistent "widows and orphans" fund if Vyeda's case were dismissed. The fire chief firmly rejected Blair's proffered "donation."

9. Finally, on November 1, 1985, Blair approached Judge Goodman, the municipal judge assigned to Vyeda's case, in chambers and asked him to dismiss Vyeda's case. Judge Goodman denied Blair's request and immediately notified the District Attorney's office, which initiated investigative proceedings resulting in Blair's termination. Blair did not attempt to bribe Judge Goodman and Judge Goodman never received any of Vyeda's cash or liquor.

10. Vyeda obtained the money given to Blair by withdrawing approximately $11,000 from a personal money market fund at Bank of the West and making up the difference out of pocket cash.

11. Vyeda claimed that he purchased the four cases of liquor at Liquor Barn.1

12. At all relevant times, Vyeda was the sole proprietor of a small electrical contracting business, Anchor Electric. Vyeda also had some "cottage industry" side activities, including collecting antiques and memorabilia and selling fireworks. It was Vyeda's possession of the latter that led to his arrest.

A. Hobbs Act Violation

The Hobbs Act provides for the criminal punishment of persons who interfere with commerce by the use of threats or violence. 18 U.S.C. § 1951.2

The government must prove four elements beyond a reasonable doubt to establish that Blair violated the Hobbs Act. These are:

a) that Blair was a Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County;
b) that Blair caused or attempted to cause Vyeda to part with either/both money and property by inducing Vyeda under color of official right;3
c) that Blair acted with the intent to obtain either/both money and property that Blair knew he was not entitled to receive; and,
d) that commerce, as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(3) (hereinafter termed "interstate commerce"), or the movement of an article or commodity in commerce was obstructed, delayed or affected in any way or degree by the extortion.

18 U.S.C. § 1951; see also Manual of Model Criminal Jury Instructions for the Ninth Circuit, section 8.31B (1989 ed.) (Hobbs Act—Extortion Or Attempted Extortion Under Color Of Official Right").

The court finds that the government has proved the first and third elements beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no question that Blair was a Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County during the relevant period. The evidence also conclusively demonstrates that Blair acted knowingly and intentionally in executing his extortion scheme, and also that he knew he was not entitled to receive either the money or the liquor which Vyeda gave him.

The court finds that the second element, that extortion be induced "under color of official right," is also proved beyond a reasonable doubt, though not in the manner alleged in the superseding indictment. The evidence shows that Blair did induce Vyeda to part with cash and liquor under "color of official right"; but this inducement was not performed while Blair was "representing the People of California in said criminal proceeding i.e., Vyeda's as a Deputy District Attorney." Indictment at 2 (emphasis added). Instead, Blair accomplished the inducement through wrongfully peddling his general influence as a Deputy District Attorney, albeit one assigned to the juvenile division and not to Vyeda's case.4

B. No Effect On Interstate Commerce

The government's case fails to satisfy the fourth element, which requires that the extortion affected interstate commerce or the movement of any article in interstate commerce. An examination of the evidence produced in this case shows that the Blair/Vyeda transaction was a purely local (non-interstate) extortion of an individual victim whose personal business did not involve interstate transactions. In none of the Ninth Circuit Hobbs Act cases finding an effect on interstate commerce has the alleged nexus between the extortion and interstate commerce been as attenuated and strained as in this case. Furthermore, other circuit courts have found the requisite interstate commerce nexus to be lacking on facts even more suggestive of an interstate connection than in this extortion.

The government advances three theories under which the Vyeda extortion affected interstate commerce. First, under the depletion of assets theory, the extortionate payment of approximately $12,000 from Vyeda to Blair reduced Vyeda's available personal funds. The government argues that Vyeda could have used these reduced funds, as the self-employed sole proprietor of Anchor Electric, to purchase electrical supplies from San Leandro Electrical Supply ("SLE"), a business engaged in interstate commerce. Thus Vyeda's extortion payment allegedly affects interstate commerce, through SLE, by ultimately reducing the amount of funds expended on the interstate purchase of electrical supplies.

The government also extends the depletion of assets theory to Vyeda's fireworks and memorabilia sidelines, contending that his purchases of these items would also be constrained by his having funneled money to the extortion payment.5

Second, the government alleges that Vyeda's purchase of one case of "scotch" from Liquor Barn, as part of the extortionate transfer of four cases of liquor, had some effect on interstate commerce.6

Third, the government contends that Vyeda's mere withdrawal of money from his account at Bank of the West to pay Blair in itself provides the necessary link to interstate commerce.

All three contentions must be rejected.

1. Legal Standard

In extending federal jurisdiction over extortionate acts covered by the Hobbs Act, Congress manifested a purpose "to use all the constitutional power Congress has to punish interference with interstate commerce by extortion...." United States v. Bagnariol, 665 F.2d 877, 894 (9th Cir.1981) (per curiam), cert. denied sub nom. Gallagher v. United States, 456 U.S. 962, 102 S.Ct. 2040, 72 L.Ed.2d 487 (1982) (quoting Stirone v. United States, 361 U.S. 212, 215, 80 S.Ct. 270, 272, 4 L.Ed.2d 252 (1960)). As a result, "the Hobbs Act definition of commerce is coextensive with the constitutional definition." United States v. Hanigan, 681 F.2d 1127, 1130 (9th Cir.1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1203, 103 S.Ct. 1189, 75 L.Ed.2d 435 (1983). Yet even this broad mandate does not relieve the government of the burden of demonstrating that interstate commerce was indeed affected by Blair's extortionate act. This nexus between...

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