Articles Posted in Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Last week the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in United States v. Mateos, a Medicare fraud case in which the Court held that exclusion of an exculpatory videotape was harmless error. This case is an important reminder to all trial lawyers to remain as well-versed as possible in the law of evidence to best represent our clients.

The defendants were employees of a clinic that purported to treat HIV patients. The clinic’s two doctors saw 70 patients per week, each of which was paid to complain about bleeding disorders. Every patient received either saline or a diluted dose of an expensive and medically unnecessary drug, and then the clinic billed Medicare for full treatments. The clinic received more than $8 million from Medicare during the five months that it was open.

Doctor Alvarez’s defense at trial was that she had not known about the fraud. She tried to introduce a video in which a member of the conspiracy assured her that the clinic was not involved in fraud to show that she had not been aware, but the video was excluded as inadmissible hearsay. The Eleventh Circuit held that the video was not hearsay because it was offered for a purpose other than the truth of the matter asserted. However, the Court held that the error was harmless because the defense had elicited the exculpatory content of the video through testimony.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Ranier. In contrast to many recent cases in which the Court held that certain crimes were not “violent felonies” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA,) the Court held in Ranier that the defendant’s prior conviction in Alabama for third degree felony burglary qualified as a predicate offense.

In the wake of Begay v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court held that “violent felonies” for the purposes of the ACCA must be similar in kind and degree to the crimes expressly listed in the statute, the courts have been hammering out which crimes do and do not qualify. We have discussed several of these cases in the following posts:

Harris (second degree felony eluding police with wanton disregard for safety is a violent felony, although third degree felony willful fleeing is not – 11th Cir.)

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.

Vagueness 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.

Preemption 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.”

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.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits here in Atlanta, Georgia, issued its opinion in U.S. v. Garcia-Cordero. The Court held that the federal immigration law that requires persons transporting international passengers to “bring and present” those passengers to immigration officers does not violate the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination as applied to criminal defendants who smuggle aliens into the United States.

The federal immigration statute at 8 U.S.C. § 1324 criminalizes bringing illegal immigrants to the United States and provides an increased penalty for failure to “bring and present” the alien to an immigration officer at a designated port of entry. The Court held that, because the immigration laws are more regulatory than criminal, and because the statute applies to all persons transporting all aliens (rather than only those without prior authorization to enter,) the statute “does not target a highly selective group inherently suspect of criminal activities.” Thus, the statute is a part of a regulatory regime, against which the Fifth Amendment privilege may not be asserted.

The Court’s opinion is available here.

In another federal criminal decision issued last Friday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the identity of a firearms purchaser is always material to the lawfulness of the purchase of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6). This decision directly conflicts with the Fifth Circuit’s 1997 holding in U.S. v. Polk that § 922(a)(6) was not violated where both the defendant and his “straw purchaser” were eligible to purchase firearms legally.

In Frazier, the defendants were involved in smuggling firearms from the United States into Canada. The evidence showed that Frazier purchased guns, then paid a woman to order the same guns from the same shop shortly thereafter. Later, another woman ordered additional guns for Frazier.

To convict under § 922(a)(6), the government must prove that the defendant made a false statement regarding “a fact material to the lawfulness of the sale or disposition of [a] firearm.” This section is violated when “an unlawful purchaser uses a straw man purchaser to obtain a firearm.” In this case, however, Frazier was a lawful purchaser using a straw man. In Polk, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that, in such a case, the false statements made regarding the identity of the purchaser were not “material to the lawfulness of the sale of firearms” so there could be no liability under § 922(a)(6).

On Friday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Lee. The Court held affirmed Mr. Lee’s convictions, holding that his communications with a “mother” of minors, absent any travel arrangements, were sufficient evidence of attempting to entice a minor. Judge Martin filed a vigorous dissent, arguing that the evidence failed to support that Mr. Lee took a substantial step toward that crime. She concurred with the majority in affirming Mr. Lee’s other federal criminal convictions.

Mr. Lee communicated with a postal inspector who was posing as a mother of two minor girls. He never communicated with anyone claiming to be a minor, although he asked the “mother” to share information and photographs with her daughters and requested photos in return. He discussed meeting them in general terms, but at one point noted that their first meeting would be as friends. He never made travel arrangements.

Judge Martin declared her “concern that the majority opinion does not clearly demarcate despicable but lawful talk from a criminal attempt punishable by up to 30 years in prison.” While the interaction was “disturbing,” no evidence showed that Mr. Lee took any steps to extend his relationship beyond his home. His actions should not count as a “substantial step toward enticing a child to engage in illicit sexual conduct.” For that reason, Judge Martin would have vacated the attempt conviction.

Today the Eleventh Circuit, which hears appeals from federal cases here in Atlanta, decided U.S. v. Fowler. The court took the government’s side in a circuit court split, holding that evidence is sufficient to establish the federal nexus of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(1)(c) where any “possible or potential communication [may be made] to federal authorities of a possible federal crime.” In other words, the government can make a federal case out of any murder, if the victim might have possibly given information that may have been eventually transferred to a federal officer or federal judge.

The facts of this case are heartbreaking. The case certainly merited the charge of murder of a police officer. The evidence showed that three men robbed a hotel, then recruited Fowler and another man to help them rob a bank the next morning. They prepared in a cemetery, dressing in black clothing, drinking, and taking drugs. Fowler didn’t want them to see his cocaine supply, so he walked away to use it. While he was gone, a local police officer showed up. Fowler snuck up behind him and grabbed his gun, while the others helped him gain control. Fowler eventually shot him in the back of the head.

This was a dreadful crime, but murder cases are not common in federal court. Why was this a federal case? In 2004, a spokesman for the Middle District of Florida’s U.S. Attorney’s office explained that the local authorities requested federal prosecution. He cited the multiple suspects, multiple crimes, and wide jurisdiction, but all of these factors are common in state-prosecuted cases.

Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals in federal cases here in Atlanta, Georgia, heard oral arguments in a habeas corpus case filed by Sholam Weiss. Weiss argues that the United States government has reneged on promises it made to the Austrian authorities to obtain extradition.

Ten years ago, Weiss was sentenced to 845 years in absentia after a jury found him guilty of RICO violations, money laundering, and other charges stemming from the white collar fraud that resulted in the downfall of the National Heritage Life Insurance Company. Just before jury deliberations began, Weiss fled the country. He was eventually arrested in Austria pursuant to an international arrest warrant. Austria initially refused to extradite Weiss, but later agreed after extensive negotiations and exchanges of information.

Weiss’s appellate lawyers argue that Austria would not have extradited Weiss had the U.S. not promised that Weiss would be given the opportunity to appeal his convictions and be resentenced. In his habeas corpus petition to the Middle District of Florida, Weiss argued that the extradition is invalid, so the United States has no personal jurisdiction over him and he should be released in Austria. The Eleventh Circuit is more likely to consider specific performance, requiring the U.S. to follow through on its promises to the Austrian authorities.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued a ruling that deals with whether one victim of an economic crime gets to climb to the top of the heap and get more recovery out of the fraudster than the remaining victims. The Court ruled that even when such a victim can trace his money directly into a bank account used by the criminal, such a victim cannot get the money back. Instead, the money goes into the pot, so to speak, and is divided among all victims pro rata.

The case involves two common themes nowadays: Ponzi schemes and forfeiture proceedings that are part of federal criminal prosecutions. As is well known, in a Ponzi scheme, the fraudster takes money from recent investors to pay off those who invested earlier, until the whole thing collapses. Forfeiture is the process by which the government takes from a criminal defendant any money that comes from, is traceable to, or is a substitute for property that is part of the crime itself.

Altogether the defendant had defrauded about $20 million from over 90 people. Just before the defendant’s scheme was discovered, he got one final investor to put in about $2 million. Almost immediately thereafter, the authorities arrested the defendant and seized his bank accounts. The final investor’s $2 million was sitting in the defendant’s bank account. The federal authorities wanted to forfeit the $2 million in the bank account, along with other assets, in order to give the proceeds back to all 90 victims.

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