Restitution in Federal Criminal Cases: Prove it or Lose it

The Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion today on a fraud case out of Florida involving issues related to restitution. The appellate court reversed the restitution order, ruling that the government had not adequately proved the amount of restitution, nor had the district judge calculated restitution based on specific factual findings. The case is United States v. Singletary.

Like many of the federal fraud cases we handle, Singletary involved questions of how much “loss” was involved, along with how much “restitution” could be ordered. Many lawyers forget that these are two very distinct issues. “Loss” is a calculation under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and this figure is one of the major factors that drives the calculation of the prison sentence in a fraud case. The Guidelines tell a judge to calculate “loss” as the “greater of actual or intended loss”. Additionally, the Guidelines also instruct that loss can be “estimated” when the proof is difficult to establish.

Restitution is quite different than “loss.” Restitution is based on the loss the victim actually suffered. In other words, “loss” can be much higher than restitution when the defendant tried to get money but was unsuccessful.

While “loss” and restitution are distinct concepts, each figure needs to be adequately proven by the prosecutor. Furthermore, when a defendant objects to either calculation, the sentencing judge must support the ultimate “loss” or restitution number with specific factual findings.

In Singletary, the Court of Appeals confronted a case where the prosecutor used a broad-brush approach to restitution, trying to come up with an estimated figure. The sentencing judge basically agreed with the prosecutor’s approach, estimating a loss of $1 million. The Eleventh Circuit reversed because the trial court “failed to carry out the task” of rendering factual findings for each and every specific loss that supported the restitution order.

This case holds lessons for lawyers who handle federal fraud cases. Remember to make the government prove both the “loss” and restitution, and when they do not, appeal the issue. It might help the client in the long run.