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In the latest example of the Roberts court reining in the government’s use of broadly worded criminal statutes, on June 26, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Snyder that the federal bribery statute does not extend to after-the-fact gifts and gratuities. The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 666 requires a corrupt intent to be influenced and does not extend to acceptance of after-the-fact gifts, or gratuities, given in recognition of an official act without a quid-pro-quo intent. The Court’s decision was split 6-3, with Justices Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and Barrett joining Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion, and Justices Jackson, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissenting.

The case involved James Snyder, then the mayor of a small town in Indiana, directing and awarding city contracts to a certain trucking company. Snyder later received $13,000 from the same trucking company, which he stated was for consulting services. The federal government charged Snyder with violating Section 666. A jury convicted, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court took the case to resolve a circuit split on the application of the statute to a gratuity.

Snyder argued that the payment was a gratuity, not a bribe, and therefore his conviction should be reversed because the government had failed to show an intent to be influenced when he accepted the payment. At oral argument, justices discussed hypothetical situations involving giving sports tickets or gift cards to a doctor or donations to a hospital as a thank you for treating an injured loved one. The government argued that the statute’s inclusion of the “corruptly” mens rea requirement insulated such benign gifts from criminalization by the statute, but the government struggled to articulate a meaningful and clear standard that would place local officials on notice of when a gift violates federal law. Multiple justices were clearly uncomfortable with the government’s approach, leading Justice Roberts to comment, “We’ve had several cases where we’ve made the very clear point that we don’t rely on the good faith of the prosecutors in deciding cases like this.”

The Court found that Section 666 does not criminalize gratuities for six reasons. First, the language of the statute, prohibiting a local official from “corruptly” accepting payment “intending to be influenced or rewarded” or an official act, requires an intent to be influenced that is absent from after-the-fact gratuities. Next, Congress amended Section 666 in the 1980s to remove a section that applied to gratuities. Third, no other U.S. Code sections outlaw bribes and gratuities in the same provision. Fourth, compared with existing gratuities laws, interpreting Section 666 to include gratuities would create inexplicable sentencing disparities. Fifth, under federalism principles it is more appropriate for states and localities to regulate gratuities absent clear Congressional intent. And finally, the lack of a clear standard would fail to give fair notice to over 19 million state and local officials who may be unwittingly subject to federal prosecution for accepting a gratuity that the federal government believes falls under the amorphous definition of “wrongful.”

Each of these six principles may be used by practitioners to further arguments limiting the federal government from broad applications of federal criminal law. Moreover, state and local officials may be more insulated from a surprise investigation or prosecution for gratuities, though the Court notes that some gratuities may still run afoul of other laws and ethical rules. This case represents another limitation in the government’s broad application of federal criminal law, and it seems likely to lead to further arguments and limitations, both in the public corruption context and otherwise.