Perfect Storm in federal prosecution: taxes, publicity and race in the Wesley Snipes case

The high profile prosecution of actor Wesley Snipes in Orlando, Florida seems to be an example of the “perfect storm” phenomenon. The combination of publicity, taxes and race has led to a variety of interesting rulings and tactics in this federal criminal tax case. These factors are a lesson to other potential high profile targets who fall into the sights of aggressive federal prosecutors. The main lesson: get good accounting, legal and public relations advice very early on.

Mr. Snipes was indicted in federal court in Orlando, and charged with two other men with a complicated scheme to avoid paying taxes, and also with improperly requesting a $12 million dollar refund. Prosecutors claim that Mr. Snipes asked for a refund, and then later stopped filing tax returns altogether based on a legal theory created by the other two defendants.

Criminal tax cases are in some sense very complicated, yet in other ways, they are simple. Too many people believe they need a lawyer well-schooled in the intricacies of the Internal Revenue Code when the feds bring a criminal tax case. While the lawyer obviously needs to understand the tax law, it is very important to remember that it still is a criminal case, the sort of legal proceeding best handled by experienced criminal defense attorneys. It appears that some of this confusion between the two types of lawyers has come up in the Snipes case. For example, Mr. Snipes asked the trial judge to let him switch lawyers on the eve of trial, supposedly because the first lawyer simply did not understand what was going on in a criminal case. The trial judge believed this tactic was merely a ploy, but later delayed the trial because an insurmountable conflict developed between Snipes and the attorney.

In another development, Mr. Snipes claims that race played a role in which charges were brought against him. He contended that he was indicted on more charges than his white co-defendants, and that prosecutors used his race as a reason for charging him more harshly than the others.

The defense team also tried to get a change of venue, to remove the case from Orlando, a request rejected by the trial judge. Mr. Snipes’s lawyers then tried to raise this issue to a higher court right away, what we call an “interlocutory appeal.” Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this interlocutory appeal. As a result, Mr. Snipes’s case will be back on the docket in Orlando soon, and he will either have to go to trial or work out some kind of deal.

Again, this case is another example of a perfect storm: a combination of factors that makes it very difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial. Status, race, publicity and tax concerns always make it difficult to defend such cases.