United States v. Paul Harris

United States v. Paul Harris, No. 18-12418 (February 19, 2019)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a prison guard defendant’s conviction for Hobbs Act extortion based on evidence that he confiscated contraband from inmates for his personal use and that the inmates “consented” by not reporting the defendant out of fear that they would be punished for possessing contraband.

18 U.S.C. § 1951 – There was sufficient evidence to prove the element of “consent” in an extortion offense where the defendant prison guard shook down inmates to obtain their contraband for his personal use and the inmates did not report the defendant out of fear that they would be punished for possessing contraband.

Right to Complete Defense – The district court did not abuse its discretion by barring the defendant from arguing that he may have committed an uncharged crime but not the charged crime.

Paul Harris was a prison guard who was convicted of extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1951(a). Harris discovered a scheme by prison inmates in which they posed as government officials and manipulated victims outside the prison into paying fake fines. Harris discovered the scam by finding pre-paid debit cards on inmates during routine “shakedowns.” Harris took the money from the inmates rather than report it as contraband. None of the inmates reported this.

Harris’s first trial ended in a hung jury after Harris argued in closing that the Government should have charged him with common law theft and not extortion. Prior to the second trial, the district court granted the Government’s motion in limine to prohibit Harris from arguing that he committed theft but not extortion.

After the second trial, the jury convicted Harris under two theories of Hobbs Act extortion, finding that he committed extortion through the “wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear” and “under color of official right.” The district court denied Harris’s motion for acquittal, finding that, although the Government did not identify specific victims, there was sufficient evidence that inmates “had a fearful state of mind when Harris conducted shakedowns,” and that, alternatively, there was an understanding between the inmates and Harris in which the inmates agreed to give their cards to Harris in exchange for his silence as to their own misdeeds.

On appeal, the Court found there was sufficient evidence to prove the elements of extortion because Harris got the inmates to “consent” to giving him their cards out of fear that he could report them for possessing contraband. As opposed to a forceful and non-consensual taking, the inmates here “retained some degree of choice in whether to comply with the extortionate threat because they could have reported Harris” for seizing their contraband for his personal benefit.

The Court also found that sufficient evidence that Harris “wrongfully used fear,” citing evidence that the inmates knew Harris as “the asshole” at the prison, that Harris was hostile and threatening during the “shakedowns” where he took the inmates’ cards, and that the inmates feared punishment for possessing contraband or refusing to participate in Harris’s “extortionate scheme.”

The Court also rejected Harris’s argument that the district court deprived him of his constitutional right to present a complete defense when it prevented him from arguing in closing that he committed simple theft but not extortion. Citing the “great latitude” of the district court’s discretion, the Court credited the district court allowing Harris to argue that he “did something wrong” but did not commit extortion and noted that the jury’s role was limited to deciding “whether the government proved that Harris committed extortion, not whether extortion was the correct charge to bring.”

Appeal from Middle District of Georgia

Opinion by W. Pryor, joined by Rosenbaum and Conway (by designation from M.D. Fla.)

TAGS: Federal Crimes, Criminal Defense