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Prison officer’s extortion conviction upheld

Inmates at the Autry state Prison had a phone scam in which they would masquerade as law-enforcement or court officials and dupe their victims into paying them for fake infractions. Victims paid money to the inmates in the form of Green Dot numbers. Green Dot corporation sells debit cards that can be reloaded by purchasing a MoneyPak at the store’s checkout counter. Inmates possessed theses Green Dot debit cards but were not allowed to possess them in the prison so they possessed the numbers on pieces of paper and hid the papers in their cell until they could load the money. The succeeded for one inmate who collected over $15,000.

Paul Harris was a corrections officer at Autry state Prison when he discovered the scam. He worked on the shakedown team that conducted surprise search of the cell of an inmate. He began to find the Green Dot numbers and learned how the inmates obtained them and that they were worth money. Instead of turning the numbers over to supervisors, Harris loaded the money onto his Green Dot cards. Meanwhile the inmate’s scam continued. After the complaints about the scam and the FBI began to investigate, the Green Dot accounts showed that the amount Harris loaded on his Green Dote card exceeded his income. When confronted he eventually confessed.

Harris was charged with a Hobbs Act extortion that involved wrongful use of fear or under color of official right. His argument at the first trial was that his conduct constituted theft but did not constitute extortion. After the mistrial, the government persuaded the judge to limit Harris’ argument to say he should have been charged with something other than extortion, but he could not argue to the jury that it was common law theft.

In his appeal he claimed the government failed to prove extortion because there was insufficient evidence to support the finding that he obtained Green Dot numbers from any inmate with his consent. The government had argued that inmates consented to give Harris their Green Dot numbers out of either fear or a mutual understanding that an inmate would not report Harris for taking his Green Dot number so that Harris would not report him for possessing contraband. Harris argued that the inmates could not consent because he took their green dot numbers during shakedowns that they could not refuse.

The court of appeals rejected Harris’s argument that the inmates lacked the ability to consent. The evidence supported the jury’s fining that the inmates consented to Harris’s taking their Green Dot card numbers without reporting him so that they would not implicate themselves for possessing contraband or for being involved in the scam. The jury could have inferred the inmates consented to Harris’s obtaining the numbers from them. It also found sufficient evidence that Harris committed extortion by obtaining the numbers by the wrongful use of fear because the inmates feared the potential punishment and its consequence of being sent to solitary confinement.

The court also rejected federal criminal defense attorney’s argument that the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a complete defense by preventing him from stating in closing that he may have committed theft but not extortion. It found the trial court only imposed a modest restriction and did not violate his right to present a complete defense.