Federal prosecutors announced in July that a 2003 Supreme Court decision forced them to drop four extortion charges against animal rights extremist Peter Daniel Young. Young, 27, was indicted in 1998 and accused of several fur farm break-ins. He was captured earlier this year after 7 years on the run.
Young had originally been charged with four counts of extortion using the same legal theory that had led to a novel civil lawsuit against anti-abortion activists. That theory attempted to stretch the definition of extortion to include criminal acts that were designed to drive a legal establishment, such as an abortion clinic, out of business.
The National Organization for Women won a civil racketeering lawsuit against anti-abortion extremist Joe Scheidler. NOW argued that Scheidler had engaged in pattern of encouraging and participating in numerous criminal acts designed to shut down abortion clinics. Like the animal rights extremists, the anti-abortion extremists used violence, threats, and harassment to intimidate their targets.
But in 2003, the Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote overturned the judgment against Scheidler, saying that regardless of what Scheidler may have done, he did not commit extortion because he did not “obtain” property from his targets which is required by federal law for the crime of extortion to have occurred. The majority opinion said that,
It is undisputed that petitioners interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights. Likewise, petitioners’ counsel has acknowledged that aspects of his clients’ conduct were criminal. But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of shutting down an abortion clinic, such acts did not constitute extortion because petitioners did not “obtain” respondents’ property. Petitioners may have deprived or sought to deprive respondents of their alleged property right of exclusive control of their business assets, but they did not acquire any such property. They neither pursued nor received “something of value from” respondents that they could exercise, transfer, or sell. United States v. Nardello, 393 U. S. 286, 290. To conclude that their actions constituted extortion would effectively discard the statutory “obtaining” requirement and eliminate the recognized distinction between extortion and the separate crime of coercion.
In his lone dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued the court had interpreted the statutes too narrowly, writing,
For decades federal judges have uniformly given the term “property” an expansive construction that encompasses the intangible right to exercise exclusive control over the lawful use of business assets. The right to serve customers or to solicit new business is thus a protected property right. The use of violence or threats of violence to persuade the owner of a business to surrender control of such an intangible right is an appropriation of control embraced by the term “obtaining.” That is the commonsense reading of the statute that other federal judges have consistently and wisely embraced in numerous cases that the Court does not discuss or even cite. Recognizing this settled definition of property, as I believe one must, the conclusion that petitioners obtained this property from respondents is amply supported by the evidence in the record.
The 2003 decision is why there have been no similar substantive RICO prosecutions of animal rights extremists. When federal prosecutors decided to indict extremists connected with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, they wisely chose to go after them for interstate stalking and conspiracy to commit same.
In light of the Scheidler decision, prosecutors in the Young case had no option but to drop the charges.
The solution to Scheidler case, by the way, is to petition Congress to alter the Hobbs act to make Stevens point explicit that a criminal conspiracy to deny access to legitimate business or other assets is included in the definition of extortion. Until then, the current federal approach of using federal statutes against interstate stalking is the best option available.
Unfortunately, the four counts of extortion filed against Young were the main charges against him. All prosecutors have left are two misdemeanor charges of violating the Animal Enterprise Act which each carry only one year in prison.
Feds drop extortion charges against accused mink farm raider. Associated Press, Todd Richmond, July 22, 2005.