The Impact of Sekhar v United States On The Meaning of the Crime of Extortion

An recent judgment of the United States supreme court called Sekhar v United States is expected to have broad implications for the interpretation of the Hobbs Act 18 USC 1951 (a) regarding the definition of extortion. The case involved Mr Sekhar, a partner in the investment firm FA Technology Ventures.

The background to the case was that in the arrangements for the pension fund, the state’s treasury was the trustee of the fund and the investment decisions made by the fund were therefore controlled by this department of the government in the State of New York. The general counsel of the state comptroller made a recommendation against the fund investing in a company called FA Technology Ventures. He then received a number of anonymous emails saying that if he did not recommend that the fund invest in this company, the sender of the emails would expose an alleged affair to the general counsel’s wife, journalists and senior government officials. Subsequently it was discovered that the source of these emails was the home PC of Mr Sekhar. He was subsequently charged under the section of the Hobbs legislation mentioned above and convicted by a jury a trial with the Second Circuit Appeals Court confirming the decision of the lower court.

However, the United States Supreme Court Eventually held that the meaning of the phrase used in the Hobbs Act “the obtaining of property from another” does not extend to extorting a recommendation that an employer approve an investment. The basis of the decision was from an argument made on the intention of the writers of the legislation and an observation that no such case had existed in the past where there had been a conviction under the Hobbs Act for extortion concerning this matter. To reach the criteria of being extortion, the goal of the conduct would be to procure cash or some other item of personal property from the victim. The decision referred to a string of related cases which confirmed the existence of this jurisprudence in previous law. The essence of the definition of the type of property interest which must be sought is that it is transferable to another individual. The court also used an extended linguistic analysis of the origins of the legislation and the case law of the United States Supreme Court which supported their conclusion. The lead judgment was given by Justice Scalia.

The decision is considered by the criminal defense bar to be a win for the rights of defendants. In this way, it also reflects the complexity of Justice Scalia’s highly textual approach to the interpretation of legislation and the constitution and confirms his argument that the application of strictly textual analysis does not always result in more conservative outcomes in Supreme Court Decision Making.

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