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United States v. Buffis

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 14, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
JOSEPH BUFFIS, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Mark G. Mastroianni, U.S. District Judge]

          Seth Kretzer and Law Offices of Seth Kretzer on brief for Appellant.

          Francesco Valentini, Attorney, William D. Weinreb, Acting United States Attorney, Kenneth A. Blanco, Acting Assistant Attorney General, and Trevor N. McFadden, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, on brief for Appellee.

          Before Thompson, Selya, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          THOMPSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Joseph Buffis, our appellant and the town of Lee's (now-former) Chief of Police, took $4, 000 from a duo accused of running a house of ill repute--and in return, he promised to halt their prostitution prosecution. Buffis now claims he didn't coerce the duo--they were completely "comfortable" forking over their funds--so he cannot be guilty of extortion. According to him, that means the jury verdict finding otherwise must be overturned. According to us, Buffis is wrong. Here's why we affirm his conviction.

         Background[1]

         Our sordid story begins with a bust. Tom Fusco and Tara Viola owned and operated an inn in Lee, Massachusetts, frequented by folks from all over the country. Viola also offered massages--with sexual services on the side. An informant spotted Viola's online ad and tipped off Lee police. A raid ensued. Distraught, Viola immediately 'fessed up to the prostitution, then offered to donate her proceeds to charity and to help bring down other sex workers and Johns by cooperating in reverse-sting operations. Lee Police Officer Ryan Lucy and Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Christopher Meiklejohn turned down the first proposition--"any forefeiture of monies, " Meiklejohn told her, "would be done through the courts and in front of a judge." The officers wanted to take her up on the second--a good informant is hard to find. But if word got out about the bust, Viola would lose her value as a cooperator. (After all, if potential Johns knew not to go to the inn, there would be no further busts to make.) So Lucy and Meiklejohn tried to keep the raid on the down-low.

         Cue our appellant Buffis, who was then serving as Chief of Police for the town of Lee. Meiklejohn clued him in on the plan to use Viola as an informant--and explained that for the plan to work, secrecy was of the essence, so he and Lucy didn't arrest Viola and Fusco. And yet, Buffis rang up the local paper and (falsely) reported that the duo had been arrested for prostitution. The local paper ran with the story--as did news outlets all over the east coast. With that, law enforcement lost a promising path to future busts, the inn lost a load of business, and Viola became terrified she would lose her kids. Viola and Fusco wanted the mess done with "as quietly and as efficiently as possible."

         Buffis butted in once again, this time offering a seemingly simple solution to Fusco and Viola's troubles (troubles, remember, that he helped create): if Viola and Fusco agreed to donate the prostitution proceeds to a local charity, Buffis would "make things go away quietly" by having the case dismissed. (Indeed, it was Buffis' call whether the charges would go forward at all--if he decided not to sign the criminal complaint against Viola and Fusco, criminal proceedings would halt.) Buffis told Fusco that they would meet in private before Viola and Fusco's first scheduled court appearance, Buffis would bring "an agreement, " and if the three came to terms, the case would be dismissed. Buffis didn't specify the charity and said he couldn't set the price--another officer would deal with the "donation"--but it could be anywhere from zero to ten grand. And, he advised, unless you want to waste your money, don't bring a lawyer. Fusco "felt pretty comfortable" with the idea of forfeiting the money if it meant the charges wouldn't go forward, so he agreed.

         When Viola and Fusco got to the courtroom, lawyerless but armed with a blank check, Buffis asked the two court employees (including Clerk-Magistrate Thomas Bartini, who was to preside over the hearing) to clear out. He then presented Viola and Fusco with an agreement--on Lee Police Department letterhead--labeled "Accord & Satisfaction." Here's what it said:

(1)Clerk-Magistrate Bartini had found "probable cause to issue criminal complaints" against Viola for Sexual Conduct for a Fee, and against both her and Fusco for Keeping a House of Ill. Fame and Conspiracy;
(2)the proceedings that day were confidential and subject to a ...

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