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Kelly v. United States

Supreme Court of the United States

January 14, 2020, Argued; May 7, 2020, Decided

No. 18-1059.

Opinion

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.

For four days in September 2013, traffic ground to a halt in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The cause was an unannounced realignment of 12 toll lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, an entryway into Manhattan administered by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For decades, three of those access lanes had been reserved during morning rush hour for commuters coming from the streets of Fort Lee. But on these four days—with predictable consequences—only a single lane was set aside. The public officials who ordered that change claimed they were reducing the number of dedicated lanes to conduct a traffic study. In fact, they did so for a political reason—to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to support the New Jersey Governor’s reelection bid.

Exposure of their behavior led to the criminal convictions we review here. The Government charged the responsible officials under the federal statutes prohibiting wire fraud and fraud on a federally funded program or entity. See 18 U. S. C. §§1343, 666(a)(1)(A). Both those laws target fraudulent schemes for obtaining [*5]  property. See §1343 (barring fraudulent schemes “for obtaining money or property”); §666(a)(1)(A) (making it a crime to “obtain[ ] by fraud . . . property”). The jury convicted the defendants, and the lower courts upheld the verdicts.

The question presented is whether the defendants committed property fraud. The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power. But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct. Under settled precedent, the officials could violate those laws only if an object of their dishonesty was to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property. The Government contends it was, because the officials sought both to “commandeer” the Bridge’s access lanes and to divert the wage labor of the Port Authority employees used in that effort. Tr. of Oral Arg. 58. We disagree. The realignment of the toll lanes was an exercise of regulatory power—something this Court has already held fails to meet the statutes’ property requirement. And the employees’ labor was just the incidental cost of that regulation, rather than itself an object of the officials’ scheme. We therefore reverse the convictions.

The setting of this case is the George [*6]  Washington Bridge. Running between Fort Lee and Manhattan, it is the busiest motor-vehicle bridge in the world. Twelve lanes with tollbooths feed onto the Bridge’s upper level from the Fort Lee side. Decades ago, the then-Governor of New Jersey committed to a set allocation of those lanes for the morning commute. And (save for the four days soon described) his plan has lasted to this day. Under the arrangement, nine of the lanes carry traffic coming from nearby highways. The three remaining lanes, designated by a long line of traffic cones laid down each morning, serve only cars coming from Fort Lee.

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2020 U.S. LEXIS 2640 *

BRIDGET ANNE KELLY, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES

Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Prior History:  [*1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

United States v. Baroni, 909 F.3d 550, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 33228 (3d Cir. N.J., Nov. 27, 2018)

Disposition: 909 F. 3d 550, reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS

lanes, Bridge’s, traffic, toll, employees, schemes, costs, traffic study, convictions, realignment, incidental, engineers, licenses, rights, local official, wire fraud, fraudulent, deception, deprive, drivers

Criminal Law & Procedure, Theft & Related Offenses, Embezzlement, Elements, Criminal Offenses, Fraud, Fraud Against the Government, Wire Fraud, Governments, Police Powers, Constitutional Law, Bill of Rights, Fundamental Rights, Eminent Domain & Takings, Fraud, Administrative Law, Agency Rulemaking, State & Territorial Governments, Employees & Officials