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United States v. Agnes

January 24, 1985


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Gibbons, Becker and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen

VAN DUSEN, Senior Circuit Judge

Defendant, Louis Agnes, was indicted on charges both of violating and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (1982). Following a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, defendant was convicted of the substantive offense but was acquitted of the conspiracy charge. His three co-defendants, Mitchell Inselberg, Michael Morrone, and Jennifer Santilli, were each acquitted on both counts. After denying defendant's post-trial motions, the district court sentenced defendant to twenty years' imprisonment and imposed a $10,000. fine.

Agnes filed a timely notice of appeal on January 20, 1984. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982). We will affirm for the reasons stated in this opinion.

I. Factual History

We adopt the district court's summary of the evidence presented at trial as stated in its memorandum opinion of February 27, 1984, denying defendant's post-trial motions. See United States v. Agnes, 581 F. Supp. 462, 464-67 (E.D.Pa. 1984).

In the fall of 1980, defendant, Louis Agnes, met two stained-glass artisans, Joseph Lam and Cheryl Hahn, who were working at a stained-glass workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Agnes complimented the two on their work and offered to provide them with financial backing if they ever decided to open their own business. In April of 1981, Lam and Hahn made such a decision and contacted Agnes about his earlier offer. Following some negotiations, Agnes loaned Lam and Hahn $5,000. in cash at no interest. Agnes asked Lam to sign an I.O.U. immediately, stating that he would have more formal loan documents prepared for their signatures at a later date.

Lam and Hahn opened the new business, Crescent Stained Glass Company, in mid-April 1981. Approximately one month later, Agnes met with the two and presented them with documents to be signed. Instead of evidencing a loan agreement between Agnes and the two, the documents were written in the form of limited partnership agreements. Moreover, Agnes' name did not appear on the documents; rather the agreement listed the names of Michael Morrone and Jennifer Santilli as partners with Lam and Hahn. Agnes explained that he wanted to use the others' names to represent his interest so that his wife would not learn of this asset during their pending divorce proceeding.

Lam and Hahn were upset with the unexpected nature of the documents and were reluctant to sign them. After Agnes became angry and threatening, however, the two did sign the documents that day. The documents characterized Agnes' $5,000. advance as a capital investment by Morrone and Santilli, which was to be repaid without interest over a period of twenty-one months beginning in July 1981.

Although no monthly payments were due to be made by Lam and Hahn for several months, Agnes began asking for money from the business almost immediately. In May 1981, at Agnes' insistence, Lam leased a Mercedes Benz automobile for Agnes. In June and July 1981, Lam gave Agnes two cash payments of $1,000. each in response to Agnes' constant demands for more money.

In mid-July 1981, when business at Crescent began to slow considerably, Agnes accused Lam of stealing money from the business and converting partnership property. Lam denied these charges and told Agnes that there was no more money to pay him. Agnes responded on several occasions by threatening to physically harm Lam if Lam did not make more payments.

On September 13, 1981, Agnes entered the shop with Michael Morrone, Jennifer Santilli, Mitchell Inselberg, and three other men. Although the shop was closed, Lam and Hahn were present along with three employees, Thomas Bryant, Leigh DiMezza and Michael Rogers. Agnes announced he was closing the business and taking everything in the shop. Agnes threatened Lam and then struck him in the face. He told Lam that no one had better interfere with his efforts to remove all the property from the shop. As a result of Agnes' actions and threats, Lam, Hahn, and the three employees were placed in fear.

Agnes then supervised the removal of items from the shop, deciding which items would be taken and which would be left behind. Agnes also told Morrone to guard Lam so that Lam could not leave or take items out of the shop. Agnes continued to make threats against Lam throughout the evening. Agnes told Lam among other things, that he was going to break Lam's legs, that he would break Lam's hand so that Lam would never be able to make stained glass again, that he should put a bullet through Lam's head, and that Lam did not deserve to see his next birthday.

One employee, Thomas Bryant, attempted to hide from Agnes certain items held by the business on consignment. Agnes confronted Bryant, threatened him, and struck him in the jaw, causing him to fall and injure his head. The New Hope police, who had been alerted that some unusual events were taking place, came twice to the shop to investigate. But Lam, while being threatened by Agnes, sent the police away both times, telling them that there was no problem.

Agnes took almost all of the property in the shop, including business records, inventory, and personal items. Prior to leaving, Agnes forced Lam to sign a document stating that he had sold all of the shop's contents to Agnes for one dollar. Agnes then threatened to break Lam's legs if Lam touched the business checkbook. He told Lam he would return the next day to put a bullet through the shop's supply of raw glass, which did not fit in the Mercedes Benz and pickup truck in which the group arrived. When Lam then tried to get some of the items back from Agnes, Agnes told Lam that he should have put a bullet in Lam's head when he had the chance.

In March 1982, Philadelphia police and FBI agents searched Agnes' apartment pursuant to a search warrant and discovered some of Crescent's business records as well as some stained-glass items. On October 18, 1982, Agnes was indicted along with Inselberg, Morrone, and Santilli. Agnes now appeals his judgment of conviction for violating the Hobbs Act, alleging several different errors by the district court.

II. Claim-of-Right Defense

A. General Claim-of-Right Defense

Defendant first alleges that the district court erred, as a matter of law, in refusing to permit the admission of any evidence demonstrating his belief that he had a lawful claim of right to the property he took from the Crescent Stained Glass shop on September 13, 1981. Defendant wished to introduce evidence supporting his contention that he was a part owner of Crescent and, as such, had a lawful right to dissolve the business and take property from it because his partner, Joseph Lam, had been embezzling money from the business. The district court did not allow the admission of such evidence, stating that any belief by defendant that he had a lawful claim of right to the property allegedly extorted is no defense to the charge of violating the Hobbs Act or conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act (see Tr. 401, 417).

Defendant was convicted of violating the extortion branch of the Hobbs Act as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2). That section defines extortion as:

". . . the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right."

18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(2) (1982).

Defendant argues that, in this case, his taking of property from the shop did not constitute extortion because it was not accomplished by the "wrongful" use of force, violence, or fear. He contends that the word "wrongful" serves to exclude from the purview of the statute the use of force in obtaining property to which one has a lawful claim of right. Defendant, therefore, maintains that the district court erred in refusing to permit him to assert a claim-of-right defense and in failing to properly instruct the jury on the meaning of the word "wrongful" in the statute.

Defendant preserved these claims for appeal by raising them at trial and in post-trial motions. By memorandum opinion dated February 27, 1984, the district court rejected defendant's argument that there is a general claim-of-right defense to Hobbs Act extortion. United States v. Agnes, 581 F. Supp. ...

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