Paying Off a Public Official: A New York Criminal Lawyer’s Analysis of New York’s Bribery Crimes

Bribing a public official to get your way in New York–whether it be a police officer in Brooklyn, a New York City councilman in Manhattan or some government official in Westchester County– can easily result in a felony conviction. While it is undeniable that at certain points in New York’s infamous history bribing public officials was an accepted practice, New York has come a long way since the days of “Boss Tweed” and the corruption of Tammany Hall. Most New Yorkers don’t necessarily need an accomplished New York attorney to tell them what a bribe is, but clarifying the legal definition of Bribery in the New York Penal Law is something that should be fully examined with the assistance of a New York criminal lawyer. Article 200 of the New York Penal Code sets forth “Bribery Involving Public Servants And Related Offenses.” A person is guilty of Bribery in New York when they offer or give any benefit to a public servant with an understanding that the public servant will be influenced and thereby change their action (e.g. a vote, an investigation etc.). In other words, if you give money to a councilmen influencing him to vote to approve your zoning change, you have committed Bribery under New York law. The degree of Bribery (Third Degree Bribery – NY PL 200.00; Second Degree Bribery – NY PL 200.03; or First Degree Bribery – NY PL 200.04) depends on the value of the bribe given, as well as the purpose of the bribe. For instance, any bribe made for the purposes of influencing an investigation, arrest, detention, prosecution or incarceration of a class A felony will automatically constitute Bribery in the First Degree. This is a class B felony with a mandatory term of incarceration punishable up to a maximum of twenty-five years. As you can see, Bribery in New York City and across the State is not to be taken lightly.

Bribery is often times a white collar crime and seen in the context of a businesses or individual trying to influence politicians or other City agencies to gain a profit for themselves. Such corruption is not just a thing of mafia movies and thrilling novels (although, Bribery is often associated with Enterprise Corruption). A great example of such a Bribery case in New York is People v. Mitchell, 40 App. Div.2d 117 (1972). Mitchell worked for a garbage disposal company which held the contract for the City of Troy. Mitchell met with the Mayor of Troy, offering $500 a month if the mayor used his influence to keep the garbage contract with Mitchell’s company. Wisely, the Mayor recorded the conversation and thus Mitchell was convicted of Bribery in the Third Degree (NY PL 200.00). A pretty clear cut case of bribery. Nonetheless, notice here that Mitchell only made an offer hoping that the mayor would use his influence to get others to vote along with him. There was no money exchanged and it was not a guarantee that Mitchell’s garbage company would receive the contract. This illustrates that one can be convicted of Bribery with just an offer, hoping to garner influence from the public servant.

At the same time, an abstract offer may not be enough to constitute Bribery. A benefit as defined in the Penal Law, is “any gain or advantage to the beneficiary.” Thus, an offer of an impalpable benefit that would not provide a direct advantage to the public servant, would not amount to a conviction for Bribery. What embodies an abstract offer you wonder? Well, People v. Cavan, 84 Misc. 2d 510 (1975), illustrates perfectly what is not a benefit and therefore not bribery. The defendant was arrested for Burglary in the Third Degree (NY PL 140.20). During the course of the arrest, the defendant asked the arresting officer if we “can’t fix this.” He offered to introduce the officer to several drug dealers, but no names or locations were specified. The Court overruled the conviction of Bribery in the Second Degree (NY PL 200.03) because a vague offer to turn “State’s evidence” (I always found that term interesting, but that is neither here nor there…) to the arresting officer just wasn’t enough to constitute a benefit under the Bribery statute. The court reasoned, “that the benefit must not be so remote, abstract, or theoretical as to create speculation as to its ultimate value to the receiver.”

For one, this case demonstrates the important fact that police are most definitely public servants. While the white-collar crime aspect of Bribery (e.g. bribing politicians) is common, so to is the more criminal aspect of Bribery, when defendants or alleged criminals try to tip the scales of the justice system in their favor (e.g. bribing police, judges etc.). An offer of a benefit must be clear and abstract, but an offer itself (not necessarily an actual exchange) is enough for a conviction. Lastly, remember that this blog post has only given a cursory view of what constitutes making a bribe to a public official under New York law. In no way is this guide to a complete understanding of Bribery crimes or how to circumvent running afoul of the law. Should you find yourself unintentionally skirting the law or intentionally doing the same, speak with your own legal counsel to full analyze the facts and circumstances of your situation. Check back on this blog for more on what constitutes receiving a bribe and the associated consequences as well as defenses for Bribery.

To learn more about Bribery, please follow the highlighted links above and below to Crotty Saland PC’s website where each degree of this criminal offense is addressed further and in detail. Additional analysis on cases in the news, legal decisions and criminal statutes can also be found on both the website and the NewYorkCriminalLawyerBlog.Com. Starting in November 2011, the NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyersBlog.Com and NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyers.Com website will have a wealth of information on New York’s larceny and theft statutes.

Crotty Saland PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors. The New York criminal lawyers at Crotty Saland PC represent those accused of white collar and violent crime throughout New York City and the surrounding municipalities.

New York Penal Law 200.00 New York Penal Law 200.03 New York Penal Law 200.04

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