Friday, October 21, 2011

Bribery Prosecution: Instruction that coercion may bear on intent not required, sentence remanded for failure to consider sentencing disparity

In U.S. v. Herman Friedman, No. 10-2235 (3d Cir., Sept. 28, 2011), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Friedman’s conviction for bribery under 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), but vacated and remanded for resentencing based on procedural unreasonableness.

Friedman owned a residential apartment building with 16 rented apartments, but after a routine inspection, a building inspector issued a Notice of Violation because only 15 units were legal. Although Friedman could apply for a variance, he faced a $500 per day penalty while his application was pending. So, Friedman arranged to pay a construction code official $5000 to overlook the violation. Unfortunately for Friedman, the code official, who had been caught taking bribes in an earlier investigation, was an FBI informant.

The Court rejected several defense arguments relating to the conviction; the most significant was an issue of first impression: whether the District Court abused its discretion in rejecting Friedman’s requested proposed jury instruction that coercion bears on the defendant’s state of mind.

Friedman’s proposed jury instruction would have charged the jury that coercion “may bear upon whether the defendant ever formed the intent required to commit the crime of bribery,” even when the defendant was not legally entitled to the act he was paying the official to perform. Friedman conceded that neither Supreme Court nor Third Circuit law (including the Third Circuit Model Jury Instructions) addressed this issue. But Friedman did cite for support the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Barash, 365 F.2d 395 (1966).

The Court found Barash inapposite because it found that coercion can bear on the intent required to commit bribery only in limited circumstances, where :“(1) the defendant is paying the official to perform an act to which he is legally entitled; and (2) the official threatens the defendant with ‘serious economic loss’ unless the bribe is paid.” Barash, 365 F.2d at 401-02. In contrast, Friedman’s proposed instruction did not limit the jury’s consideration of coercion to situations where the defendant was legally entitled to the act. The Court further noted that even if Friedman’s jury instruction were proper as a matter of law, the record provided no evidence of coercion.

In vacating and remanding Friedman’s 34-month sentence for resentencing, the Court noted , among other things, that the District Court had not considered explicitly the “unwarranted sentencing disparities” sentencing factor of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). In his sentencing memorandum, Friedman noted the sentence of another person convicted of the exact same offense — involving the same $5000 bribe to the same code official — who received a sentence of three-years’ probation.

Summary by Ron Krauss

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