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Enacted in 1946, the Hobbs Act defines its crime of “extortion” as the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right. 18 U.S.C.S. § 1951(b)(2). Obtaining property requires not only the deprivation but also the acquisition of property. That is, it requires that the victim “part with” his property, and that the extortionist “gain possession” of it. The property extorted must therefore be transferable—that is, capable of passing from one person to another.
Investments for the employee pension fund of the State of New York and its local governments were chosen by the fund's sole trustee, the State Comptroller. After the Comptroller's general counsel recommended against investing in a fund managed by FA Technology Ventures, the general counsel received anonymous e-mails demanding that he recommend the investment and threatening, if he did not, to disclose information about the general counsel's alleged affair to his wife, government officials, and the media. Some of the e-mails were traced to the home computer of petitioner Sekhar, a managing partner of FA Technology Ventures. Petitioner was convicted of attempted extortion, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. §1951(a), which defined “extortion” to mean “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right,” §1951(b)(2). The jury specified that the property petitioner attempted to extort was the general counsel's recommendation to approve the investment. The Second Circuit affirmed. Petitioner challenged the decision.
By attempting to “extort” the general counsel’s recommendation to approve the investment, was petitioner guilty of extortion within its meaning under the Hobbs Act?
The Supreme Court determined that reversal of petitioner’s convictions was warranted because the alleged property could not be extorted. The Court noted that the property extorted had to be transferable, but the alleged property in petitioner’s case lacked that defining feature. Attempting to compel a person to recommend that his employer approve an investment did not constitute "the obtaining of property from another" under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1951(b)(2). Whether one considered the personal right at issue to be "property" in a broad sense or not, it certainly was not obtainable property under the Hobbs Act. Petitioner’s goal was to force the general counsel to offer advice that accorded with petitioner’s wishes, but that was coercion, not extortion.