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Federal Appeals Court Overturns Federal Bribery Conviction

The aptly labeled crime 18 U.S.C. § 666 creates a federal crime out of certain acts of state government bribery (as well as embezzlement from certain state government and non-profit entities).

The distinguishing characteristic of the offense that allows it to be charged as a federal crime is that the crime must involve an entity that received “benefits in excess of $10,000” within one year of the offense conduct.

Due to the pervasive involvement, through grants and other spending, of the federal government in the financing of state and local governments, courts have long struggled with the coverage of § 666. For example, the Supreme Court has dealt with this issue on at least three occasions: Salinas v. United States, 522 U.S. 52, 57 (1997); Fischer v. United States, 529 U.S. 667 (2000); and Sabri v. United States, 541 U.S. 600, 606 (2004).

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in, overturning a federal bribery conviction under § 666 of a city councilman in Florida who was caught accepting bribes because the government did not prove that the city received benefits in excess of $10,000. Full opinion US v. McLean -11th Circuit 2014 – Full Text.

At the outset, the court was “mindful that the Supreme Court recently cautioned against federal criminal statutes being read too expansively.” (Citing Yates v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1074 (2015) (concluding the term “tangible object” defined within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, legislation designed to restore confidence in financial markets, did not apply to the undersized red grouper that a commercial fishing vessel’s captain threw overboard)).

The court then applied a test fashioned from a prior case that required the government to provide sufficient detail about the particular local government program that the federal government allegedly funded in excess of $10,000 to allow the court to determine whether the program constituted a federal benefit.

The court found that the government’s evidence did not provide sufficient detail regarding the alleged federal benefits received by the city and therefore overturned the city councilman’s conviction.

The overarching concern the judges appeared to have been federal involvement in state crimes, particularly because (contrary to current practice) there is no generalized federal police power.  The Supreme Court shares this concern, as exemplified in US v. Bond, decided in 2014, which overturned a woman’s conviction for utilizing a “chemical weapon” when she surreptitiously placed mildly toxic chemicals on a romantic rival’s door handle causing a minor rash.  The Court specifically determined that it “can insist on a clear indication that Congress meant to reach purely local crimes, before interpreting the statute’s expansive language in a way that intrudes on the police power of the States.”

These cases, McLean and Bond, both show an attempt to curb the expansion of federal policing into state and local offenses in response to the over-federalization of law enforcement in this country, a topic wonderfully covered by lawyer Harvey Silvergate in his book Three Felonies a Day.

For Raleigh federal criminal defense attorneys, these rulings are important to be aware of since they suggest that courts will be less willing to endorse the expansion of the federal police power.

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At Cheshire Parker we represent people under investigation or charged with federal crimes.  To discuss your case and your legal options for defense, contact one of our Raleigh federal criminal defense attorneys at CPSB today.

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