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Former Lee Police Chief Will Appeal Extortion Conviction To Supreme Court

The attorney for the former police chief of Lee, Massachusetts — who was convicted of extortion in May 2016 — says he will file an appeal to the Supreme Court. 

Former Police Chief Joseph Buffis was found guilty in June 2015 of coercing a town couple who ran an inn to donate $4,000 to a toy charity Buffis was running. In exchange, Buffis allegedly said he’d drop pending prostitution charges against them. In May 2016, Buffis was sentenced to 27 months in prison for extortion.

So far, Buffis has served 14 months, first at Wyatt Detention Facility in Rhode Island, and now at FCI Gilmer in West Virginia.

His attorney, Seth Kretzer, tells WAMC Buffis will file an appeal to the Supreme Court.

“I believe that there is a circuit split that’s developed on this narrow issue of extortion,” Kretzer says.

Kretzer says there is dissent among the justices over the definition of extortion.

“In the old days, bribery was regarded as taking money in exchange for an official act – very simple: Give me $10,000 and I will dismiss the case,” Kretzer says. “Extortion was designed to be, you know, force. For the private citizen the statute was passed when you have like a truck driver who’d pull someone over and say: give us the money if you want to pass through our territory or we are going to take you out and beat you. For public officials, you have to do it in the color of official right.”

Or, using authority to threaten people. 

Kretzer says Buffis did not apply any pressure on the couple and did not make the arrest. He says the Supreme Court might consider the extortion as a lesser improper gratuity, or throw out the case altogether.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In a letter to the court in 2016, Lee Police Chief Jeffrey Roosa said Buffis used his badge to say “give me your money or else.” 

Berkshire Eagle reporter Bob Dunn covered the trial and sentencing.

“The judge said as much, he was considering a lower sentence until he saw this lack of responsibility, this lack of contrition on Mr. Buffis’ part,” said Dunn.

The court sentenced Buffis to two years of probation, 200 hours of community service and restitution, in addition to his prison term.

Buffis was fired in 2013 after he was indicted. Lee claimed he used town funds to pay for his family’s cell phone plan.

Chief Jack Rinchich, the president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told WAMC in 2013 that in cases involving the arrest of law enforcement officers, public officials are held to a higher standard, so alleged wrongdoing can lead to immediate action from elected officials because of pressure from the public.

“Unfortunately police officers are not always afforded the same rights as citizens in terms of due process and you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” Rinchich said. “Sometimes people are quick to judge a police chief simply because of his position.”

Extortion was the only charge to stick. Buffis was found not guilty of 10 other counts, including fraud and money laundering. He was facing 20 years in prison. Again, Buffis’ lawyer Kretzer.

“He was acquitted on by far the most serious – and I am sure talking about felony charges, to say one is more serious than the other might sound silly, but the money laundering counts would have scored far higher under the guidelines,” Kretzer says.

The decision was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals Monday. An appeal would need to be filed in the next 90 days.

Buffis is expected to finish his prison term in May 2018.

If the case is heard, Kretzer says the best case scenario for Buffis is having the conviction overturned. That would allow Buffis to go free without a felony conviction on his record. But even in that case, he says it’s unlikely Buffis would receive any compensation for his time in prison.

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