Di Pietro: Federal Court of Appeals in Eleventh Circuit Upholds Criminal Conviction for Arranging Marriages Between Illegal Immigrants and U.S. Citizens

August 31, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

On Friday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where lawyers go when appealing a federal civil or criminal case that comes out of Georgia, Florida, or Alabama, issued its opinion in United States v. Di Pietro. Linsy Di Pietro was convicted of arranging marriages between illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens to help the immigrants obtain permanent legal status. The Court affirmed the district court’s refusal to dismiss the indictment on vagueness and preemption grounds.

Ms. Di Pietro was convicted of aiding and abetting violations of 8 U.S.C. § 1325(c). That federal statute prohibits marriage fraud: knowingly entering “into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws.” She argued that, although the statute clearly prohibited her conduct, it is void for vagueness as applied to others. She further argued that the statute implicates the right to marry, and hence the First Amendment, requiring a heightened vagueness standard. The Court rejected her vagueness challenge because “a plaintiff who engages in some conduct that is clearly proscribed cannot complain of the vagueness of the law as applied to others.” There is no exception for vagueness challenges implicating the First Amendment.

In what the Court called a “novel” argument, Ms. Di Pietro also asserted that Florida’s marriage laws, which she said allow such marriages of convenience, preempted the federal statute. Preemption is based upon the Supremacy Clause, providing a basis for invalidating state or local laws when they conflict with laws of the United States. Ms. Di Pietro’s argument “turn[ed] the Supremacy Clause on its head.” State laws cannot trump federal laws, so preemption “does Ms. Di Pietro no good.”

The full opinion is available here.

Kottwitz: Eleventh Circuit Holds Trial Court Should Have Given Good Faith Defense Jury Instruction

August 27, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Kottwitz. This opinion is important because it explains in detail when a trial court must instruct the jury on good faith reliance on the advice of his advisor. The Court also addressed the sufficiency of the evidence on defendants’ Klein conspiracy and tax fraud and evasion charges.

In holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in refusing to give the good faith reliance instruction, the Court thoroughly reviewed the law regarding such instructions. The instruction is designed to refute the government’s proof of the defendant’s intent. “The defendant bears an ‘extremely low’ threshold to justify the good faith reliance instruction and does not need to prove good faith.”

White-collar criminal defense attorneys often deal with good faith reliance issues and should keep Kottwitz in mind when arguing for such an instruction. The “good faith” defense is often the single most important issue when prosecutors go after a person based on what he or she did in the business context. A person who acts in good faith cannot be guilty where he or she did not intend to break the law. The lawyers in this case struggled to get this concept across to the jury, but were thwarted in their efforts when the trial judge took a different view of the appropriate instruction for the jury.

The full opinion is available here, including Judge Birch’s dissent on the issue of sufficiency of the evidence of the conspiracy.

Villarreal: Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Denies Speedy Trial Claim Where Ten Years Elapsed Between Indictment and Arrest

August 17, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held last week that a ten-year delay between indictment and arrest did not deprive Victor Garcia Villarreal of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Court employed a four-factor balancing test, holding that although the length of the delay gave rise to a presumption of prejudice, the reason for the delay, failure to promptly assert the right, and lack of actual prejudice showed that Villarreal was not denied his right to a speedy trial. In weighing the final three factors, the Court gave substantial deference to the district court’s factual findings that Villarreal had evaded arrest and the delay had caused the government actual prejudice, rather than the defendant.

The full opinion in United States v. Villarreal is available here.

U.S. v. Belfast: Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Holds That § 924(c) May Apply to Crimes of Violence Committed Outside United States Territory

August 9, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a federal crime to use or possess a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, can apply to crimes of violence committed outside the United States. In U.S. v. Belfast, the first case prosecuting an individual under 18 U.S.C. § 2340A (the Torture Act,) the Court upheld a § 924(c) conviction where the American citizen defendant tortured people in Liberia.

The defendant, a man of many names whom the court referred to as Emmanuel, is the American born-and-raised son of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. President Taylor put Emmanuel in charge of the “Anti-Terrorism Unit,” which was known in Liberia as the “Demon Forces.” In that role, Emmanuel tortured many individuals between 1999 and 2002. Twelve pages of the Court’s 87-page opinion recount horrifying details of that torture.

The Court justified the application of § 924(c) to crimes of violence committed extraterritorially by arguing that the plain language of § 924(c) provides for its application to any crimes that “may be prosecuted in a court of the United States.” Because the Torture Act, which applies extraterritorially, may be prosecuted in federal courts, the Court reasoned, “a § 924(c) charge can arise out of extraterritorial conduct that is found to be in violation of the Torture Act.”

In so holding, the Court glossed over the general presumption that statutes apply only domestically, with extraterritorial effect only where congressional intent is clear. Without citing any case law approving the application of § 924(c) to conduct outside the Unites States, the Court distinguished U.S. v. Small, a Supreme Court case holding that the word “any” in a different federal criminal statute could not overcome that Congress normally legislates with only domestic concerns in mind.

We believe this case would be a good candidate for the Supreme Court to grant certiorari if Emmanuel appeals this decision. If that happens, we will provide an update on the case.

The full opinion in U.S. v. Belfast is available here.

U.S. v. Irey: Divided En Banc Eleventh Circuit Holds Criminal Child Pornography Sentence Substantively Unreasonable And Remands for Sentencing at Statutory Maximum

August 4, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, decided United States v. Irey. The 142-page majority opinion recounted gruesome sex crimes that Mr. Irey admitted to committing against as many as 50 Cambodian girls, some as young as four years old. The Court held that the 17½ year sentence ordered by the federal district court judge was a substantively unreasonable downward variance and remanded for sentencing within the Sentencing Guidelines range, which was 30 years at both the top and bottom. As one of the dissenting judges noted, “hard facts often lead to bad law” and we worry that this case will unduly limit district court judges’ discretion in imposing variances in future sentencing decisions.

The lengthy majority opinion began with an account of Mr. Irey’s criminal conduct and case. In short, Mr. Irey repeatedly traveled to Cambodia and China, where he bought underaged Cambodian girls to abuse in horrific ways that the Court said set Mr. Irey apart from “many examples of man’s inhumanity” that steadily flow through the Court of Appeals. During that abuse, he produced “some of the most graphic and disturbing child pornography that has ever turned up on the internet.” He later distributed those images, which have become widely known as “the Pink Wall series.” He was charged with and pleaded guilty to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2251(c), which prohibits producing such images of child pornography elsewhere, then transporting them into the United States.

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the adjusted offense level for Mr. Irey’s conduct would have led to an advisory sentence of life imprisonment. However, the statutory maximum for his crime as charged was 30 years. For that reason, the Guidelines range was 30 years.

At sentencing, the defense introduced the reports and testimony of two experts in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to address Mr. Irey’s diagnosis of pedophilia. The court also heard from Mr. Irey’s friends and family, who characterized him as a “hero.” The government did not introduce any experts or other witnesses. The sentencing judge focused on Mr. Irey’s diagnosis and otherwise good character in sentencing him to 17½ years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release.

The majority opinion extensively reviewed the history of sentencing law, concluding that it must apply an abuse of discretion standard to its review. The Court held (and the dissenting judges disagreed) that an appellate court may, in its review, itself weigh the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors to be used in imposing a sentence to determine whether the district court’s balancing of the factors was substantively unreasonable. Based on its own protracted analysis of the § 3553(a) factors, the Court held that the district court’s major variance from the Guidelines sentence was substantively unreasonable.

While the sickening facts in this case make a 17½ year sentence surprising, we worry that the law that the Eleventh Circuit had to make to substitute its reasoning for the district court judge will negatively impact sentencing decisions in this circuit. As Paul Kish commented to the Daily Report, “It is a message to district judges that there are boundaries beyond which you cannot go or you will incur the wrath of certain judges whose views differ from yours.” Judges will be less likely to stray from the Guidelines, despite their advisory status since U.S. v. Booker.

The full opinion in U.S. v. Irey is available here, along with concurring and dissenting opinions, totaling more than 250 pages.

The Daily Report article regarding this case is available here.

Federal Sentencing Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine Reduced

August 3, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Today President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 into law. This federal law reduces the disparity between criminal sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 and eliminates the mandatory minimum five-year sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. While this is a step in the right direction, a significant disparity remains and the law has not been made retroactive.

The major features of the law include the following:
• The five-year mandatory minimum sentence now applies to cases involving at least 28 grams of crack cocaine, compared to the prior 5 grams.
• The ten-year mandatory minimum sentence now applies to cases involving at least 280 grams of crack cocaine, compared to the prior 50 grams.
• The Act eliminates a five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine.
• The Act increases financial penalties for major drug traffickers.
• Within 90 days, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) must increase the sentences under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines for defendants using violence in drug trafficking crimes and emphasize certain aggravating and mitigating factors.
• The Comptroller General must report to Congress on the effectiveness of drug court programs.
• In five years, the USSC must report to Congress on the impact of the law’s changes to cocaine sentencing law.

The full text of the Act is available here.