Federal Criminal “Honest Services” Fraud Law Applicable Here in Atlanta to be Reviewed by Supreme Court

May 29, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

Eleventh Circuit case law, the controlling federal law here in Georgia, is at risk of changing next fall, when the Supreme Court will likely decide a criminal case and resolve a split among the circuit courts of appeals.

The mail fraud and wire fraud laws are the bread and butter for federal prosecutors bringing white collar cases. Each of these laws requires a scheme to defraud another person out of “money or property.” For many years, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the word “property” included the right to “honest services” from public employees (such as elected officials). In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the word “property” does not include “honest services,” but several months later Congress amended these statutes so as to include the concept of “honest services” within the universe of cases that can be prosecuted under the federal mail and wire fraud statutes. Specifically, Section 1346 of the Federal Criminal Code expands the definition of a “scheme or artifice to defraud” under the mail and wire fraud statutes to encompass schemes that “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

Despite the background of this type of fraud, the concept of “honest services” has now been extended by federal prosecutors beyond situations where a public official may have engaged in fraud. Recently, federal prosecutors are bringing more and more cases against people who work for private companies, arguing that the employee breached his or her duty of rendering “honest services” to the employer.

Last Monday the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Black v. United States. The Court will decide whether this Section applies in a purely private setting where the defendant’s conduct did not risk any foreseeable harm to the putative victims.

The case involves media mogul Conrad Black, who built an international newspaper empire from a single Canadian newspaper, eventually owning hundreds of community newspapers, as well as several large newspapers, such as the Chicago Sun-Times and London’s Daily Telegraph. In the late 1990s, Black predicted the affect the internet would have on newspapers and suggested that the company sell most of its smaller newspapers. As a part of those deals, purchasers paid Black for covenants not to compete, which the government construed as a scheme to defraud the company’s shareholders, although the money from those deals would have been paid to a different company controlled by Black and his co-defendant, anyway. The trial court’s instructions permitted the jury to convict even if they found that the shareholders didn’t lose any money. Black was convicted. The Seventh Circuit upheld the conviction, even though the law in at least five other circuits would have required reversal.

In 1999, the Eleventh Circuit here in Atlanta decided United States v. DeVegter, requiring the government to prove that economic harm was at least reasonably foreseeable in a private “honest services” case such as this one. Without this rule, Black argued in his petition to the Supreme Court, “[t]he only obstacle to converting every violation of corporate governance or company rules into federal crimes would seem to be the moment-to-moment whims of federal prosecutors.” We hope that the Supreme Court, when it decides this case, agrees with the Eleventh Circuit.

The Court's docket for this case is available here.
The Seventh Circuit's opinion below is available here.
Mr. Black's petition for certiorari is available here.
The government's brief in opposition is available here.
Mr. Black's reply brief is available here.

Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 Expands Fraud and Money Laundering Statutes

May 28, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

In a previous post we discussed the federal statutes on money laundering, why they can prove complicated for criminal defense lawyers in defending cases, and how much broader they are than most people think, affecting even white collar cases. Last week President Obama signed the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 (FERA) into law, expanding the money laundering statutes (and many fraud statutes) even further.

In our post linked above, we mentioned that used car dealerships are “financial institutions” under the federal criminal code’s definition, even though most people would never consider them to qualify as such. FERA expands the definition even further, including even businesses that are not directly regulated or insured by the federal government.

FERA also expands the money laundering statutes by reacting to a significant Supreme Court case that was decided last year. In United States v. Santos, the Court held that the word “proceeds” in the money laundering statutes referred only to profits obtained from illegal activity, rather than all money brought in, or the “gross receipts.” FERA overrules that part of the Court’s decision by defining “proceeds” as “any property derived from or obtained or retained, directly or indirectly, through some form of unlawful activity, including the gross receipts of such activity.”

FERA expands the government’s ability to prosecute fraud in a number of ways in addition to those enumerated above. Financially, it authorizes over $500 million in additional funding for the DOJ, SEC, USAO, FBI, U.S. Postal Inspector, and Secret Service. It also amends fraud statutes to punish significantly more broad behavior, enlarging the mortgage applications statute, major fraud statute, and securities statute, and significantly expanding the civil, but punitive, False Claims Act. FERA will have an important impact on white collar criminal law.

Professor Pogdor gives a more detailed analysis of FERA’s impact on the money laundering provisions over at the White Collar Crime Prof Blog.

Criminal Defendants Lose Another Protection of Federal Constitutional Rights

May 27, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

Yesterday the Supreme Court eliminated a federal protection of criminal defendants’ right to counsel. Criminal defendants here in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as the rest of the country, now may be interrogated by police even after they secure representation by defense lawyers, if they don’t specifically request the lawyers’ presence or if they are not in police custody.

In yesterday’s Montejo v. Louisiana, the deeply divided Court overruled its 1986 opinion in Michigan v. Jackson, which prohibited police from initiating interrogation of a criminal defendant once he or she had invoked the right to counsel at an arraignment or similar proceeding. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, reasoned that the rule in Jackson was unworkable because some states appoint public defenders without any request from the defendant, whereas other states require defendants to formally request counsel. That discrepancy led to different treatment of defendants based on only geography. Scalia went on to explain that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which Jackson protected, is sufficiently guarded by the Fifth Amendment right to counsel rules proscribed in Miranda v. Arizona, Edwards v. Arizona, and Minnick v. Mississippi.

Frankly, we disagree. The Fifth Amendment protections are limited to only custodial interrogations, so they do not apply to any defendants who are not in custody or who are interacting with police in a non-interrogation situation, such as a line-up. They are significantly narrower protections than Jackson provided. In addition, the whole point of getting a lawyer is that he or she can evaluate the situation and provide advice to the defendant during a very stressful time. Simply Mirandizing a person who has been formally charged and who has already obtained counsel is not sufficient, particularly if that person has not yet had a chance to even meet his or her lawyer, as was the case in Montejo.

We are very disappointed by this decision.

The Court's opinion can be found here.

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta Issues Heads-Government-Wins, Tails-Defendant-Loses Decision in Federal Criminal Case

May 13, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

Because our offices are in Atlanta, our firm primarily handles federal criminal cases in Georgia. However, we also have experience in Florida, as well as Alabama. Two of us have lived and worked in Florida and spent a lot of time driving on I-95, where the events relevant to this case occurred. The majority supports heads-I-win, tails-you-lose government evidence and justifies its decision with facts that, viewed by anyone who has spent any time in Florida, demonstrate racial profiling.

The case is United States v. Bautista-Silva. In March 2008, a Border Patrol agent was parked in a marked car at a rest stop along I-95 in Orlando, Florida, watching the southbound traffic. He saw a Chevy Suburban with California plates with two Hispanic men in the front seat and four more passengers in the back. As it drove past the rest area, it passed a pickup truck pulling a flat trailer. At this point the agent decided that this was an alien smuggling case and took off to catch the SUV. He had to drive 90 miles per hour to catch up. When he finally caught up, the driver slowed down to let him pass. None of the passengers made eye contact, even when the agent waved at them. That is when he pulled them over.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida held that the agent lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and granted the defendant’s motion to suppress all statements and evidence obtained as a result of the stop. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that the agent had acted based upon specific and articulable facts that, under the totality of the circumstances, created a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. Judge Pryor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Judge Farris from the Ninth Circuit, and Judge Barkett dissented.

The “specific and articulable” facts were:

1. The vehicle was an SUV;
2. The six passengers were Hispanic males;
3. The vehicle was registered in California;
4. They traveled south on I-95;
5. They passed by a pick-up truck pulling a flat trailer;
6. The defendant may have accelerated, then slowed down when the marked car caught up; and
7. The passengers refused to look at the agent.

Judge Pryor ignored the usual rule that appellate courts construe the facts in the light most favorable to the party who prevailed in the court below (in this case, the defendant.) Instead, he focused on the agent’s testimony that smugglers often use large vehicles to transport illegal aliens, California is a known staging area for human smuggling, and the passengers were nervously avoiding his attention. The judge also said that southbound I-95 is a route known to be used by smugglers to transport aliens to South Florida and characterized the defendant’s driving as an attempt to hide behind the flat trailer, then evade the agent by driving erratically.

The district court judge in Florida and Judge Barkett, who has spent most of her life living in Florida, viewed most of the facts as neutral and too commonplace to lend any meaningful weight in a totality of the circumstances analysis. Our firm’s former Florida residents agree. SUVs are too popular, I-95 is too crowded, and tourism is too large a sector of Florida’s economy for those facts to support reasonable suspicion, even when added together. In addition, the District Court found no evidence that smugglers use I-95 disproportionately and there was no evidence that the defendant had even seen the agent’s car when passing the trailer.

And, of course, the occupants were Hispanic. Did I mention this case took place in Florida? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Florida’s population was of Hispanic or Latino origin in 2007. They were headed toward Miami-Dade County, where 62 percent of the population was of Hispanic or Latino origin in 2007.

In weighing the occupants’ “suspicious” behavior, the Court majority supported the common heads-I-win, tails-you-lose government approach to evidence. The defendant “hid” behind the flat trailer, which, by the way, was not an eighteen-wheeler or other object that could actually hide a Suburban from view. He also “evaded” the agent, staying on the road despite an available exit and driving with the flow of traffic. He drove “erratically” by slowing down when approached by a marked car. The passengers were “nervous” because they didn’t look at the agent (although, in our experience, agents tend to claim that looking at them is suspicious behavior, too.)

The Border Patrol agent saw Hispanic men in an SUV and had a hunch they may be illegal immigrants. Because a hunch isn’t legally sufficient, he had to come up with specific, articulable facts to support his decision to pull them over. We are disappointed that the majority’s zeal for helping the police seems to have led to a ruling that allows law enforcement officials to engage in racial profiling.

Supreme Court Decision in Federal Identity Theft Case Overrules Eleventh Circuit Precedent, Changing Criminal Law Here in Atlanta

May 5, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

On Monday the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Flores-Figueroa v. United States, resolving a split in the circuits in favor of criminal defendants. The Court held that a federal aggravated identity theft statute requires the government to prove that the defendant knew that the means of identification that he or she used, transferred, or possessed actually belonged to another person. This decision overrules a prior decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal cases in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

The statute is 18 U.S.C. § 1028A, entitled “Aggravated Identity Theft,” which provides, in pertinent part:
Whoever, during and in relation to any felony violation enumerated in [§ 1028A(c)], knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such felony, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 2 years.

The analysis of the statute involved its syntax – the sentence diagrams of grade school. The basic sentence that the Court analyzed was “Whoever knowingly uses identification of another.” In this sentence, “whoever” is the subject, “uses” is a transitive verb, and “identification” is the direct object. “Of another” is a prepositional phrase modifying the direct object. The dispute boiled down to whether the adverb “knowingly” modified the entire predicate, including the propositional phrase. The government argued, and the Eleventh Circuit held in United States v. Hurtado, that the knowledge requirement in the statute did not extend to the phrase “of another person.” The Supreme Court disagreed “as a matter of ordinary English grammar.”

Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, first pointed out that it would be nonsensical to claim that “knowingly” modified only the verb, penalizing someone who uses “a something, but does not know, at the very least, that the ‘something’ (perhaps inside a box) is a ‘means of identification.’” Rather, “knowingly” must modify both the verb and the direct object.

The government argued that “knowingly” applies to all but the last three words, which are the propositional phrase modifying the direct object. The Court explained, though, that “[i]n ordinary English, where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as knowingly) that modifies the transitive verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object as set forth in the sentence.” In this statute, the object was set forth as modified by the prepositional phrase. The opinion included several examples of sentences with a similar structure in which a listener would assume “knowingly” modified both the verb and the direct object, but could not come up with any sentences that would lead the hearer to believe that the adverb modifies only a transitive verb without the full object.

Following its syntactic analysis, the Court emphasized its consistency with how courts ordinarily interpret statutes, saying, “courts ordinarily read a phrase in a criminal statute that introduces the elements of a crime with the word “knowingly” as applying that word to each element.” Criminal defense attorneys can use this reasoning to renew challenges to other statutes in which mens rea has not been applied to all elements, including statutes involving minors and aliens ineligible to enter the country. This potential for new challenges makes this decision extremely important.

The Court also rejected the government’s legislative history argument and practicality of enforcement concerns.

The opinion in Flores-Figueroa is available here.

Supreme Court Ends Its Streak Protecting Rights With Georgia Federal Criminal Case

May 1, 2009 by Kish & Lietz

We first discussed Dean v. United States in December, when the Supreme Court agreed to review the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion of the federal case. During a robbery of a bank in Rome, Georgia in 2004, Christopher Michael Dean accidentally fired his gun while taking money from a teller drawer. No one was injured.

The Eleventh Circuit, here in Atlanta, Georgia, upheld Dean’s eighteen-year sentence, which included a ten-year minimum sentence for firing the gun. We hoped that the Supreme Court would overturn this decision, because such significant criminal liability should never be imposed without criminal intent OR injury.

In the last couple of weeks, the Supreme Court has guarded our 4th Amendment rights against unlawful searches and protected us from secret detention and government overreaching. This week, however, the Court ended its short streak with Dean. The Court held that a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence applies if a gun is discharged during a violent or drug trafficking crime, even if the gun is fired entirely by accident. This disregard for the most basic element of criminal liability, mens rea, is extraordinarily disappointing.

The Supreme Court's opinion is available here.