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Supreme Court to hear case of Baltimore officer convicted in towing scandal

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by one of the former Baltimore police officers convicted in a wide-ranging kickback scheme tied to a Rosedale auto body shop.

Samuel Ocasio, who was found guilty by a federal jury in 2012, asked the high court to rule on the definition of a conspiracy charge — one of four counts that formed the basis of his conviction under the Hobbs Act.

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The law, frequently used in public corruption cases, allows for the federal prosecution of extortion and robbery that impedes the flow of commerce across state lines. Federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on the law.

As part of the scheme, officers illegally channeled the owners of broken-down and damaged vehicles to Majestic Auto Repair in Rosedale in exchange for cash, according to federal court records. In some cases, officers falsified police reports and added damage to boost the amounts that could be claimed from insurance companies.

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Prosecutors presented evidence that included wiretapped conversations, video surveillance, banking records and testimony from drivers whose cars were towed. The investigation netted about 60 officers between 2008 and 2011, leading to 16 convictions and numerous suspensions. All but three of the officers who faced criminal charges pleaded guilty.

The high court will not rule on Ocasio's conviction on three charges of extortion. But Ocasio contends in court filings that to prove a conspiracy, prosecutors must show that he agreed to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy, and says that lower courts apply the law differently.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, has ruled that conspirators must have agreed to obtain property from someone outside the conspiracy, wrote defense attorneys Ashley C. Parrish and Ethan P. Davis.

But the 4th Circuit, which includes Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, has not taken the view that an outsider's involvement is a necessary element for such a charge. It ruled against Ocasio in April 2014.

Ocasio, who was recruited from Puerto Rico during the Baltimore Police Department's push in 2006 to increase its ranks of Spanish-speaking officers, contends that he did not accept kickbacks and only made referrals to Majestic. But the shop owners, who pleaded guilty, testified that Ocasio was among the officers who made referrals for cash and helped the body shop defraud insurance companies.

Ocasio was convicted of accepting a total of $1,500 for referring five motorists to the body shop.

He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and has been released.

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