Forfeiture of $1.7 million for crime involving $22,000: Court of Appeals says this is not “disproportionate”

When we handle federal criminal cases here in Atlanta, Georgia and in other parts of the country, our clients often face criminal penalties along with possible forfeiture of their property. Lawyers often forget how important these financial penalties can be. A recent case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (located several blocks from our office in Atlanta) shows the importance of understanding the immense financial penalties that can be imposed in a federal criminal matter. The case is United States v. Chaplin’s.

Two brothers (we will call them #1 and #2) owned separate jewelry stores here in Atlanta. Brother #1 was caught in an undercover sting operation selling $22,000 in jewelry to a person he thought was a drug dealer. He agreed to accept more than $10,000 in cash from the person he thought was a drug dealer, and also agreed to not file the IRS forms that are required in this situation. Brother #1 was charged with and convicted of money laundering.

The government also charged the corporation that owned Brother #2’s store with similar crimes. This was one of those relatively rare situations where the prosecutors went after a corporate entity. The prosecutors got convictions against the corporation that owned #2’s store based on the fact that some of Brother#1’s dealings were done in the store owned by #2.

The government convinced the trial judge to impose a total financial penalty of over $1.9 million against the corporation that owned the store operated by Brother #2 in a case where Brother #1 sold $22,000 in jewelry to an undercover agent. The judge ordered a $100,000 fine, restitution of $22,000 and forfeiture of the entire jewelry inventory, valued at over $1.7 million.

The corporation appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, sensibly arguing that this financial penalty was grossly disproportionate with the crime and the harm caused by Brother #1. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that this was OK because these were serious crimes and Congress had authorized substantial financial penalties in such cases.

This case is a lesson for lawyers who handle serious federal criminal cases. We need to fight not only jail sentences, but also battle against the government’s increasing inclination to try and bankrupt our clients and everyone near them.