June 08, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Boyle v. United States

On June 8, the Supreme Court decided Boyle v. United States, No. 07-1309.

Boyle and others participated in a series of bank thefts across several states during the 1990s. Although the group would meet in advance to plan the crimes, it was loosely and informally organized, having no apparent leader or hierarchy and no long-term plan or agreement. Boyle joined the group by 1994, and participated in numerous attempted night deposit box thefts and at least two attempted bank vault burglaries. Boyle was indicted in 2003 for participation in the conduct of the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, conspiracy to commit that offense, conspiracy to commit bank burglary, and nine counts of bank burglary and attempted bank burglary. RICO makes it "unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise's affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt." The statute does not fully define an "enterprise," but states that the term includes "any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity."

At trial, the district court instructed the jury that, to establish the existence of a RICO enterprise, the United States had to prove that: "(1) There [was] an ongoing organization with some sort of framework, formal or informal, for carrying out its objectives; and (2) the various members and associates of the association function[ed] as a continuing unit to achieve a common purpose." The court also gave further explanation of what is required to find an enterprise. Boyle, however, requested an instruction that the United States was required to prove that the enterprise "had an ongoing organization, a core membership that functioned as a continuing unit, and an ascertainable structural hierarchy distinct from the charged predicate acts." The district court did not give Boyle's requested instruction. Boyle was convicted on 11 of the 12 counts against him, including the RICO counts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed Boyle's conviction, but did not specifically address his arguments about the RICO jury instructions, stating that they were "without merit."

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. Resolving a split among the Courts of Appeals, it held, first, that an association-in-fact enterprise under RICO must have a "structure . . .beyond that inherent in the pattern of racketeering activity in which it engages." Such a structure must have three "structural features": a purpose, relationships among those associated with the enterprise, and longevity sufficient to permit these associates to pursue the enterprise's purpose. The Court concluded, however, that a district court is not required to use the word "structure" in its jury instructions, so long as the substance of the requirements is adequately expressed. Moreover, although a structure must be ascertainable, there was no error in not using that word. It is incorrect to suggest that the existence of an enterprise may never be inferred from evidence showing that persons associated with the enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity. In that sense, Boyle's argument that an association-in-fact enterprise must have a structure "beyond that inherent in the pattern of racketeering activity" was rejected.

The Court then held that the jury instructions given by the district court were correct and adequate. They explicitly told the jurors that they could not convict Boyle on the RICO charges unless they found that an enterprise had been proven to exist and made clear that this was a separate element from the pattern of racketeering activity. The instructions adequately explained the structural attributes of an enterprise.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas and Ginsburg joined. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined.

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