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A district court's refusal to provide a requested instruction constitutes reversible error if (1) the requested instruction was legally correct, (2) the content of the requested instruction was not otherwise covered, and (3) the omitted instruction was so vital that its absence seriously impaired the defense.
The government charged Nathan Van Buren with honest-services fraud (through bribery) for undertaking an "official act" in his capacity as a police officer, in exchange for money. At the close of the evidence, the district court instructed the jury that an "official act" is a decision or action on a "question" or "matter." But it did not inform the jury that the "question" or "matter" in this context must be comparable in scope to a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination. The jury convicted Van Buren with one count of honest-services wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346, and one count of felony computer fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1030. At trial, the government presented the FBI's recordings of the interactions between Van Buren and Albo, and the jury convicted Van Buren of both counts. Van Buren appealed his convictions. He argued the jury instructions the district court gave were incorrect, insufficient evidence exists to support his convictions, and the district court denied him his Sixth Amendment right to confront an adverse witness during the trial.
Was Van Buren’s conviction of honest-services wire fraud proper?
The court held that Van Buren was improperly convicted of honest-services fraud because the district court committed reversible error in declining to instruct the jury that an official act had to be similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee, and that omission deprived defendant of a potent argument and allowed the jury to convict him without identifying a qualifying question or matter on which he acted. A remand for a new trial on the honest-services charge was the appropriate remedy because had the government identified a correct question or matter, the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the government, was sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that defendant was guilty of bribery beyond a reasonable doubt.