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Private citizens can be charged with public corruption

The Hobbs Act is a federal law often used in connection with cases whenever a public official is said to be involved with corruption while acting under the color of official right.

What exactly does that mean?

For the purposes of the Act, it means that an official accepts a payment that he or she shouldn't in exchange for official acts. Similar to bribery charges, it's a little broader and easier to enforce because the government doesn't have to prove that the official actually performed any specific favor for the individual making the payment—just that he or she agreed to do so if the opportunity arose. There doesn't have to be any coercive effort on the official's part either—his or her position as a public official is, according to the Supreme Court, inherently coercive.

The Hobbs Act has another aspect about it, though, that makes it a useful tool to prosecutors—one that makes it especially dangerous to even minor players in a scheme involving public corruption. It can be used against private citizens as well. Anyone who caused a public official to perform an official act in return for payments or aided and abetted the process of making payments to the public official in exchange for official acts can be charged.

That's a prospect that could alarm anybody since it means prosecution at the federal level instead of by the state, which often means stiffer sentences.

For example, the Hobbs Act was recently used to charge two Ohio brothers and a councilwoman from Summit County. The brothers are private citizens, but they're charged under the Hobbs Act for giving the councilwoman money, loans, campaign contributions and other favors. In exchange, the councilwoman used her position to advocate for a state liquor license for the brothers, who were affiliated with several convenience stores in the area. She also used her position to help another family member with a criminal charge.

It's important to keep in mind that anytime there's an investigation into public corruption, it isn't just the public official that can end up facing federal charges—laws like the Hobbs Act are increasingly being used to bring heavy charges against everyone involved. If you're concerned about the possibility that you could be caught up in a public corruption investigation, no matter how small your part, an attorney with experience in white collar crimes can help you build a strong defense.

Source: Offices of the United States Attorneys, "2404. Hobbs Act -- Under Color Of Official Right," accessed Feb. 08, 2017

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