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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers - 526 U.S. 398, 119 S. Ct. 1402 (1999)


The crime of bribery requires intent to influence an official act or to be influenced in an official act, while the crime of illegal gratuity requires only that the gratuity be given or accepted for or because of an official act. In other words, for bribery there must be a quid pro quo—a specific intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act. An illegal gratuity, on the other hand, may constitute merely a reward for some future act that the public official will take and may already have determined to take or for a past act that he has already taken.


Respondent Sun-Diamond Growers was a trade association that engaged in marketing and lobbying activities on behalf of its member cooperatives, which were owned by approximately 5,000 individual growers of raisins, figs, walnuts, prunes, and hazelnuts. It was alleged that respondent gave tickets, luggage, meals, and other gratuities worth more than 5,000 to former Secretary of Agriculture Michael Espy while two matters in which it had an interest in favorable treatment were pending before Espy. As such, the United States charged respondent with violating the illegal gratuity statute, which made it a criminal offense for anyone to give anything of value to a public official "for or because of any official act performed or to be performed" by such official. The indictment, while mentioning certain matters as to which the association allegedly had an interest in favorable decisions by Espy at the time that the association made the gifts, did not allege a specific connection between those matters and the gratuities. Respondent therefore moved to dismiss that charge. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied the motion. Furthermore, the district court included in its instruction to the jury concerning the scope of 18 U.S.C.S. § 201(c)(1)(A), statements that it was sufficient if respondent provided the Espy with unauthorized compensation simply because he held public office, and the government did not need to prove that "the alleged gratuity was linked to a specific or identifiable official act or any act at all." The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, however, reversed respondent's subsequent conviction on the illegal gratuity charge and remanded the case for a new trial on that charge, as the court ruled that the district court's instructions invited the jury to convict on materially less evidence than the statute demanded.


Did the court of appeals err in reversing the conviction?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that, in order to establish a violation of the "illegal gratuity statute," 18 U.S.C.S. § 201(c)(1)(A), the United States was required to prove a link between a thing of value conferred upon a public official, plus a specific "official act" as defined in 18 U.S.C.S. § 201(a)(3) for or because of which the gift was given. According to the Court, to hold otherwise would criminalize token gifts made to public officials by special interest groups without proof that a political favor was expected in return. 

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