As followers of trends in e-commerce, our firm takes a keen interest in new e-payment methods. Last year, we predicted the Bitcoin would emerge as an innovative mode of currency for online transactions. When Bitcoin – an alternative virtual currency – first appeared in the mainstream media, it was largely portrayed as a wonky, nerdy counterculture experiment in decentralized wiki-currency. Reports explained that it was based on digital cryptography, but few if any people actually understood the math and even fewer could explain it in language that was comprehensible to most of us. But things have changed, and it is a whole new Bitcoin world.
Recent reports actually treat Bitcoin like a part of the mainstream economy. Government officials testifying on Capital Hill warn legislators not to underestimate the value that Bitcoin brings to the economy. Even leaving aside the federal shutdowns of illicit sites like Silk Road (an eBay-like marketplace for illegal drugs), ever-growing numbers of businesses are accepting Bitcoin as payment. Online market Overstock.com and social gaming site Zynga.com have both indicated their intent to accept Bitcoin. The owner of the Sacramento Kings has announced that fans will soon be able to buy tickets and hot dogs using Bitcoin. And it even appears that it will be possible to make political contributions using Bitcoin – doubling down on the whole issue of transparency versus anonymity in campaign contributions.
So if your organization considers using or accepting Bitcoin, there are some significant considerations:
1. The value of Bitcoin is extremely volatile.
Individuals can exchange national (fiat) currencies for Bitcoin through a variety of exchanges that have popped up in response to the demand for such services. The prices on these exchanges vary considerably among themselves at any particular time, and the price of Bitcoin has fluctuated wildly over the course of the past year. One Bitcoin was worth about $13 a year ago (in January 2013); in November 2013, the price surged over $1000 per Bitcoin. For a period of time, people in China were reportedly using Bitcoin as a means to avoid currency restrictions in that country; when China issued a ban on Bitcoin, the price swooned, although it later recovered much of that value.
The volatility of Bitcoin obviously poses challenges for businesses that accept them. Some address the issue by setting prices in national (fiat) currencies, accepting payments in Bitcoin but exchanging them on a regular basis. Other businesses have proposed engaging in sophisticated hedging transactions to address this risk.
2. Bitcoin has regulatory uncertainty.
To even talk about regulations and Bitcoin feels like it cuts against the entire vibe of this alternative currency, but there is little doubt that it is coming. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) has stated unequivocally that Bitcoin exchanges (which exchange Bitcoin for fiat currencies) and most Bitcoin “miners” (which process Bitcoin transactions) must register as Money Services Businesses (MSBs) under Department of the Treasury regulations. And legislators in the U.S. Congress are unquestionably considering what regulations can and should be imposed on the currency in order to safeguard against abuses without extinguishing the innovation to which it is so closely tied.
3. Bitcoin is anonymous – sort of.
When Bitcoin first emerged in the public eye, it was ballyhooed – and demonized – because of its supposed anonymity. The belief that its users could indeed remain anonymous gave rise to marketplaces for drugs and murders for hire paid in Bitcoin. The rub is that Bitcoin is not entirely anonymous: The digital framework of the currency is that each transaction is recorded in the cryptography itself (preventing fraud such as spending the same Bitcoin twice), and it is possible in some cases to use that information to find one’s way back to a Bitcoin user. The combination of a belief in anonymity and the ability of law enforcement to identify users obviously poses risks related to anti-money laundering obligations of which businesses must be aware.
4. Bitcoin still has security issues.
The last, but possibly most serious, consideration about accepting Bitcoin is lingering questions about security. Bitcoin are balances (credits) assigned to “addresses” (random strings of letters and numbers) that are publicly available. To spend the balance associated with a particular “address,” a user must have the corresponding “private key” (a slightly longer random string of letters and numbers) and apply a digital signature that allows some portion of that balance to be transferred to another address. Thus, the security of Bitcoin relies entirely on the security of “private keys”: Anyone who gains access to a private key gains access to the Bitcoin balance associated with that key. Given the recent headlines about data security breaches, it is not hard to understand why there might be concerns about accepting a virtual currency that can be purloined simply by stealing digital data from a computer.
The likelihood is that it is simply too early to judge whether Bitcoin is simply a fad or a harbinger of a sea change in our notion of what constitutes money and currency in a global digital world. Businesses who are early adopters may garner significant gains – or they may get burnt by early “learning experiences.” Inside counsel are wise to advise their clients about the risks and benefits of Bitcoin so that business leaders may make wise choices about the decision to accept them.
A Massachusetts man, whose ex-girlfriend had a restraining order out against him, was recently arrested for sending her an invitation to join Google+. This unfortunate drama sheds light on the disparate impact of ordinary things.
According to the Salem News, after receiving a Google+ invitation, Tom Gagnon’s ex-girlfriend went to the police station with a copy of the invitation and the restraining order in hand. The police agreed that the invitation violated the terms of the restraining order; certain Massachusetts orders require that the defendant “refrain from contacting the plaintiff, unless authorized by the court.”The police obtained an arrest warrant, and Gagnon was arrested at his home roughly 90 minutes later.
In court, Gagnon’s counsel argued that the charges were “absolutely unfounded,” asserting that Gagnon had no idea how his ex-girlfriend received the invitation. Judge Brennan, of the Salem District Court,said that he didn’t know how the invitations work either. He set bail at $500, released Gagnon, and ordered him to comply with the terms of the restraining order. A status hearing is set for February 6.
The defendant’s argument is simple: he didn’t send the invitation; Google sent it “automatically” without his (express) consent; and he should not be held criminally liable for Google’s unauthorized actions on his behalf. The Court’s Model Jury Instructions on violations of such restraining orders indicate that Gagnonwill likely prevail – if he can show that the invitation was the accidental, incidental, or inadvertent result of an automated message from Google+. If, on the other hand, the government shows that Gagnon intentionally sent the invitation, he may be found guilty.
Separate from how this plays out in Salem District Court, this incident highlights very important issues for criminal defendants and social media companies more broadly.
For criminal defendants and others under court supervision, Gagnon’s experienceoffers a (relatively obvious) teachable moment: make sure you understand your account settings to ensure that you do not inadvertently land yourself in jail. Post-arrest exoneration is good, avoiding jail in the first place is arguably better.
For the social media companies themselves, the issues are knottier and the lessons more nuanced. Perhaps there is a fundamental disconnect between Google’s machinations of complete interconnectedness and their appreciation for how that could negatively affect users’ real lives. Indeed, persons under court supervision are marginalized, silenced, and regulated in ways that the “average” American never encounters. As a result, companies large and small may (inadvertently) fail to consider how seemingly innocuous product features might affect those customers’ lives.
The line between corporate and personal responsibilities is subjective, broad and hazy. Social media companies have a lot to consider when rolling out new technology, and they can’t think of every possible eventuality. But maybe, just maybe,this worst-case-scenario come to life will make them reconsider those default settings…
Last month, the Missouri Court of Appeals published its opinion holding that criminal defendant David Polk is not entitled to a new trial. Although the prosecutor may have acted improperly by posting trial updates via Twitter, there was no evidence that her updates swayed the jury to convict Polk. The court’s decision resolves a once-cold case that began in St. Louis more than twenty years ago.
In January 1992, Polk approached an eleven-year old girl on the street, then forced her to the basement of a vacant lot and repeatedly assaulted her. Soon after, the victim and her mother reported the crime to local authorities, who collected DNA and other evidence. After that, the case went cold. But three years ago, authorities were notified of a DNA match linking Polk to the crime. The investigation was reopened and culminated in Polk’s prosecution for forcible rape and forcible sodomy. A jury convicted on both counts, and Polk was sentenced to fifteen years on each count.
After trial, Polk asked the judge to dismiss the case or strike the jury panel. In support of his request, Polk submitted evidence that, during the time frame of the trial, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had posted inappropriate comments about the case on Twitter:
- Prior to jury selection, Joyce tweeted, “David Polk trial next week. DNA hit linked him to 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl. 20 yrs later, victim now same age as prosecutor.”
- During trial, Joyce posted two comments. In the first, she tweeted, “Watching closing arguments in David Polk ‘cold case’ trial. He’s charged with raping 11 yr old girl 20 years ago.” In the second, she tweeted “I have respect for attys who defend child rapists. Our system of justice demands it, but I couldn’t do it. No way, no how.”
- During deliberations, Joyce tweeted, “Jury now has David Polk case. I hope the victim gets justice, even though 20 years late.”
- Post-verdict, she tweeted, “Finally, justice. David Polk guilty of the 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl. DNA cold case. Brave victim now the same age as prosecutor,” and “Aside from DNA, David Polk’s victim could identify him 20 years later. Couldn’t forget the face of the man who terrorized her.”
According to the defense, Joyce’s comments not only violated the professional rules of conduct but tainted the jury verdict as well. But the trial court refused to dismiss the indictment or strike the jury, and Polk appealed.
In a decision published last month, the appeals court affirmed Polk’s conviction, but acknowledged that the Circuit Attorney’s posts were problematic. The court admitted that her comments may have violated the rules of professional conduct for prosecutors. The rule in question prohibits prosecutors from making out-of-court statements that stoke public sentiment against the accused unless they serve a legitimate law-enforcement purpose. Joyce’s tweets may have crossed the line. They did not appear necessary to inform the public, but highlighted evidence against the defendant, dramatized the victim’s plight, and referred to Polk as a “child rapist,” a term that was likely to arouse heightened public condemnation.
The Court of Appeals also noted that such posts have the potential to taint a jury verdict. But the law required Polk to show more than potential prejudice—he had to show that the extrajudicial comments “substantially swayed” the jury. Because he proffered no evidence that jurors were aware of, much less influenced by, the posts, Polk was not entitled to a new trial.
Jennifer Joyce is not the first prosecutor to catch flak for abusing social media. Cleveland prosecutor Aaron Brockler was fired after he contacted defense witnesses on Facebook and dissuaded them from providing alibi testimony. But the issue in that case was the prosecutor’s confirmed use of deception to influence trial witnesses. The issue in Polk’s case was whether the prosecutor’s tweets influenced the jury, as alleged. There was no evidence to that effect, so the conviction was affirmed.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes have filed suit against Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell after the Department Interior blocked their effort to offer real-money online gaming to international customers.
The Tribes were prepared to launch Pokertribes.com after coming to a revenue-sharing agreement with the state of Oklahoma. Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes were permitted to offer their online gaming to clients overseas, but were prohibited from offering gaming to clients in Oklahoma or elsewhere in the United States. Under the compact, the tribe would pay the state 4 percent of the first $10 million in annual net revenue from electronic gaming, 5 percent of the next $10 million and 6 percent of any subsequent amount, plus a monthly 10 percent from non-house banked card games.
However, the Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs disapproved two versions of the plan, in August and November 2013 respectively, finding that the state of Oklahoma could not offer exclusive access to an international market and that therefore the state’s “concession is illusory” and it is not entitled to revenue sharing. Notably, however, the Department of Interior explicitly declined to “reach the issue of whether internet gaming as contemplated in the Agreement was lawful,” restricting the basis of its opinion to the fact that “the State has not offered a meaningful concession” sufficient to justify sharing revenue from the online games. Since the Department did not approve the agreement, Pokertribes.net is currently inactive.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe filed the complaint against the Department of Interior on December 26, 2013 alleging that its decision was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise contrary to law. The tribe seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent further obstruction of the website’s operation. The case is currently pending before Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti in the Western District of Oklahoma.
Instead of trying to resolve this issue through litigation, we think the better path forward for the Tribes would be to use their political leverage to pass state legislation allowing the Tribes to offer intrastate online gaming to Oklahoma residents, as well as to players internationally. If the Tribes were successful in getting this legislation passed, their authority to offer online gaming would be derived from state law rather than tribal compact and would therefore preclude federal involvement. Offering gaming to Oklahoma residents as well as international customers would also resolve any concerns about the state’s allegedly illusory concessions.
As long-time observers of and participants in the internet gaming industry, we at Ifrah Law looked forward to 2013 as a year full of promise for internet gaming, particularly in the United States. In the end, industry progress in 2013 was mixed:
The year saw the enactment of online gaming in New Jersey and online poker in Nevada and Delaware, but also saw a district court judge and then a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit block New Jersey from proceeding with sports betting. During 2013, a number of the individual defendants charged in the Black Friday case in the Southern District of New York settled their cases, and the former customers of Full Tilt Poker saw the beginnings of the remission process that is promised to return to them some or all of the money they had on deposit with Full Tilt at the time of the April 2011 seizures.
After a year filled with so many changes, we naturally are looking forward to see what will happen in theinternet gaming industry in 2014. Here are a few of our predictions:
This past year we witnessed the definitive shift away from an expectation that poker would be legalized through federal legislation, and toward state-by-state enactment of regulatory schemes for online poker. The limitation of the state-by-state approach, of course, is that the legalization of poker in a state only permits individuals in that state to play against other individuals in that same state. In a state like Nevada or Delaware with small populations (and small player pools), there will be significant pressure to increase player liquidity by executing agreements with other states that will permit individuals from all of those states to play against one another. It is very likely that Delaware, New Jersey and Nevada will enter into a multistate poker agreements with each other in 2014, and that any other states that enter the market will be close behind. To the extent that states other than New Jersey authorize online gaming other than poker, those agreements may also encompass other games such as slot machines. The result will be more people at the tables, bigger prize pools, and more competitive games. This, in turn, is likely to increase the popularity of the games, meaning more money coming in for the states to share. And more money will likely to encourage states on the sidelines to enter the market to get a cut of the earnings. These latecomers may actually rely on the established regulatory bodies – such as those in New Jersey and Nevada – rather than creating licensing and regulatory infrastructure in their own states.
It seems obvious to us that other states will want to tap into online poker or gaming as a source of revenue. But it is less clear which states will make the move – particularly the states with massive markets like California. With a population of some 38 million people, California has nearly five times the population of New Jersey and more than a dozen times the population of Nevada, making it potentially the most lucrative online market in the United States. So will California join the fray in the coming year? Odds are even; numerous bills have been discussed in the past, but the state will have to start accelerating its legislative agenda in order to get anything off the ground in 2014. The prominence of tribal gaming in California poses special challenges, as the Native American tribes – who view gaming as their special prerogative –will undoubtedly demand a significant share of revenues. The only certainty is that, if California does enact online gaming, the size of its population will permit it to dictate to other states the terms of interstate agreements for its players.
Hail Mary Pass
No list of predictions for the year would be complete without calling one longshot. In 2012, New Jersey attempted to enact sports betting in its casinos, but progress was barred after a suit by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and professional sports leagues under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). The past year saw the district court issue its injunction in NCAA v. Christie, and a federal appellate court uphold that prohibition. This year we will see whether the United States Supreme Court will take the case and, if so, how it will rule. The case poses just the kind of issues that the Supreme Court often addresses, including the balance of power between the power of the federal government and the rights reserved to the state by the United States Constitution. If the Supreme Court were to hear the case and rule in favor of New Jersey, intrastate sports betting would undoubtedly soon begin, and be followed soon thereafter by online sports betting. But the numbers do not lie: The Supreme Court historically acceptsfewerthan one percent of thecases it is asked to hear. In the end, we have to concede that a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court is a bit of a HailMary pass. But like its football namesake, to watch it happen can be awfully exciting because of what is at stake.
Here at Ifrah Law we will be keeping a close watch on developments in 2014 so that our clients may benefit from all of the new opportunities that are sure to appear in the online gaming industry.
Appellate courts do not often reverse a trial judge’s decision to grant a new trial, so we took notice when the First Circuit did so in United States v. Carpenter. Given the case history, the First Circuit decision should help to answer an important question: How much leeway do prosecutors have when summarizing evidence in closing arguments?
In 2005, a jury convicted Daniel Carpenter on nineteen counts of wire and mail fraud. The charges pertained to Carpenter’s operation of Benistar, a company that handled “like kind” exchanges for owners of investment property. Under federal law, investors may defer capital gains on the sale of investment property if they exchange it for another property of like kind. In order to qualify, the seller or “exchangor” must complete the exchange within 180 days of the initial sale and must not take possession of sale proceeds in the interim. To meet the requirements, exchangors usually rely on a qualified intermediary to hold the exchange funds until they are reinvested. Benistar’s business as a qualified intermediary gave rise to the charges against Carpenter.
The government alleged that Carpenter obtained investors’ exchange funds by fraud. At trial, the prosecution argued that Carpenter persuaded investors to contract with Benistar by misrepresenting that their funds would be managed conservatively for a modest return of 3 to 6%. According to prosecutors, Carpenter made the representations knowing full well that the money would be used for high-risk trades. The jury apparently agreed, returning a guilty verdict on all counts.
Carpenter requested a new trial, which the trial judge granted due to the government’s repeated use of a gambling metaphor in closing arguments. The court noted that the evidence against Carpenter was sufficient for a conviction, but not overwhelming. The government may have tipped the scales by arguing that Carpenter had gambled with investors’ money hoping to make millions for himself. It was possible the jury convicted based on moral disapproval of gambling rather than evidence of fraud.
In a divided opinion, the First Circuit affirmed, largely deferring to the trial court’s assessment.
At the end of the re-trial, the government omitted the gambling metaphor, focusing instead on Benistar’s marketing materials, contracts with investors, and Carpenter’s profit motive. Again, the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts having deliberated for roughly two hours.
At Carpenter’s request, the trial judge ordered a third trial, but not for reasons advanced by the defense. This time, the judge was troubled by the jury’s two-hour deliberation. He observed that it would be nearly impossible for jurors to walk through the evidence for nineteen different counts in two hours. They must have taken a shortcut. Thus, the judge ordered a new trial on grounds that the prosecutor had invited jurors to employ certain presumptions based on mischaracterizations of evidence. For one, the government implied that Benistar’s marketing materials made express misrepresentations about the safety and security of investor funds. In reality, the marketing materials supported only an inference to that effect. The government also invited jurors to presume that qualified intermediaries are prohibited from using exchange funds for high-risk trades, when that is not the case. Moreover, by emphasizing Carpenter’s profit motive, the government may have encouraged jurors to convict for “greed” rather than fraud.
On appeal, the First Circuit disagreed and reinstated the guilty verdict. A unanimous panel held that the prosecution’s statements were permissible summations of the government’s theory of the case, not mischaracterizations of record evidence. The government had argued that Carpenter took in millions based on false pretenses that Benistar would keep the exchange funds safe and secure. That argument was not improper, as the trial court found, because the prosecution followed it with a discussion of specific evidence supporting that conclusion. Similarly, the government argued that “like kind” transactions are typically conservative—not so the jury would convict based on some imaginary statutory violation or breach of contract, but to establish that Carpenter knew Benistar’s risky investment strategy differed from investors’ expectations. And the government’s references to Carpenter’s profit motives were equally permissible. Those comments went to prove Carpenter’s specific intent for the fraud, which was to make more money.
A comparison of the two appellate decisions suggests that the district court erred because it failed to see the forest for the trees. By treating each of the government’s questionable statements in isolation, the court found support for a new trial. But the statements had to be considered in context. In context, the prosecution’s comments were not mischaracterizations of evidence but main points of the government’s theory, which the prosecution supported from the record.
Given Carpenter’s pro-defense trial judge, it’s unclear why the defense opted for a third jury trial. In hindsight, Carpenter may have fared better by ditching the jury request in favor of a bench trial.
By: Karl Smith and Casselle Smith
The value of Bitcoin, the hottest and most widely traded virtual currency, plunged a little over a week ago, after China’s central bank issued a statement that the government is banning financial institutions from trading in the virtual currency.The price of a single Bitcoinfell from roughly $1200 on December 5th to less than $600, early morning December 8th. Thereafter it recovered somewhat selling for around $700 as of December 16. At the time of this posting (12/18), the price had fallen once again to $571.
This time last year, Bitcoin were selling for roughly $13 apiece. Economists and financial experts have struggled to explain the meteoric rise price to investors and to a public increasingly interested in the virtual currency. In many ways, the soaring price for Bitcoin looks like a classic bubble: Speculators pay out of the nose for Bitcoin, hoping to unload them to an “even greater fool” who will come along later with the same plan. At first blush, this type of bubble appears to resemble a pyramid scheme that must inevitably collapse once all potential speculators have bought in.
Bitcoin, however, has important features that differentiate them from other bubble-prone assets. The fact that the crash coincided with a change in policy from the Chinese government makes it even more likely that the special features of Bitcoin have played an important role in their use.
The design of Bitcoin allows for almost completely secure and anonymous transactions. Users don’t have to trust that a bank or other financial intermediary will keep their information secret. For the most part, the very nature of a Bitcoin transaction does this. Consequently, the currency has attracted substantial interest from users engaged in illicit transactions. Some of these are of the kind familiar to American readers. The website Silk Road, for example, specialized in selling narcotics and accepting Bitcoin as payment; it has been shuttered by U.S. law enforcement.
The Chinese government’s ban on Bitcoin arose from a different sort of illicit transaction that is less familiar to Americans because it are designed to get around regulations that the United States does not impose… Here’s the rub: the Chinese government limits its citizens’ ability to invest outside of the country because it wishes to provide a large pool of capital available to Chinese industries. Since Chinese investors have limited choice, Chinese banks can offer them paltry rates of return that guarantee that the value of their investments will fail to keep up with inflation. Naturally, Chinese investors wanted a way out, and many of them turned to Bitcoin.
Chinese investors would buy Bitcoin using the local currency, the Yuan. They would then transfer the Bitcoin to a bank or other financial institution outside of China and have that institution sell the Bitcoin and invest the proceeds outside of China. When the investor was ready to cash in, she would simply instruct the financial institution to sell the foreign investments, use the proceeds to buy Bitcoin, and then transfer the Bitcoin back to her.
This loophole allowed Chinese investors to earn higher rates of return without being caught by the authorities. For a time, the Chinese government allowed the loophole to remain open. On Wednesday, however, the Chinese government banned financial institutions and, importantly, online platforms like Biadu.com, from doing any business in Bitcoin. Baidu is a Chinese search engine that, like Google,forms the backbone of how users connect online. Without Baidu’s help,finding someone to buy or sell Bitcoin in the first place becomes exponentially more difficult.
Fear that the Chinese market for Bitcoin would dry up seemed to lead speculators to dump the currency following the announcement. It also exposes the fundamental weakness of Bitcoin: while they allow enormous anonymity for users, connecting with a broadbase of other users requires using a platform which almost necessarily does not seek anonymity. If it did, potential users would not know of their existence.
Regulators don’t have to crackdown on users themselves but simply on the websites and platforms that connect them.
There is no readily apparent US or European analogue to the Chinese monetary policy that motivated the country’s crackdown. Hence, China’s stance does not necessarily indicate that an international sea change is afoot with respect to the legal nature of Bitcoin and other emerging virtual currencies. Nonetheless, to the extent that Bitcoin’s surge in value was precipitated by Chinese investors’ thirst for international investment capabilities, the recent crash highlights the currency’s deep vulnerability to changes in financial regulation around the world.
Karl Smith is the Creator and Chief Curator of Modeled Behavior, a leading international finance and economics blog currently hosted on Forbes. He blogs mostly on macroeconomics, rationality, philosophy, and futurism.
Supreme Court Grants Cert to Resolve Circuit Conflict on Intent Required to Prove Federal Bank Fraud
On December 13, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted a certiorari petition in a case that squarely poses the question of what the government must prove with respect to intent in order to convict a defendant of federal bank fraud. There is wide agreement among the Courts of Appeal that, in order to secure a conviction under Title 18, United States Code section 1344(1) (making it illegal “to defraud a financial institution”), the government must prove that the defendant intended to defraud the government and to expose it to a risk of loss. With respect to subdivision 2 of the statute, however (making it illegal to obtain money and the like of a financial institution “by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises”), the Circuits are split six to three – with the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits holding that the same intent requirement applies under either subsection of the statute, and Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits holding that subsection 2 establishes an independent crime that requires only intent to defraud someone (and not necessary a bank) and some nexus between the fraudulent scheme and a financial institution.
In the case in question, Kevin Loughrin v. United States, the defendant was convicted of bank fraud arising from a scheme to make fraudulent returns at a Target store despite the undisputed fact that he did not intend to cause (nor actually caused) any risk of financial loss to the bank. The Tenth Circuit acknowledged that it took the minority view of split Circuits, but nevertheless upheld the conviction, and Loughrin filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court. In his petition, Loughrin emphasized that having different standards for each subsection regularly led to opposite results in factually similar cases.
The Court’s decision in this case could be a game-changer for the way in which prosecutors use the federal bank fraud statute. In many cases – for example, the Black Friday poker cases in the Southern District of New York – bank fraud charges pose the most serious consequences for a criminal defendant but are asserted in cases in which there is no intent to expose the financial institution to loss. A change in the law will change the way such cases are charged by prosecutors, and alter the dynamics of how such cases are negotiated and tried. Whatever the Court’s ultimate decision on the issue, it will bring badly needed clarity to this area of the law.
Last month, federal prosecutors in Nevada filed a motion to dismiss an indictment that shined a bright light on overly broad federal criminal statutes and the abuse of prosecutorial discretion in using them.
John Kane and Andre Nestor were each charged in an indictment in January 2011 with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of computer fraud in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the same law that was used to prosecute Internet activist Aaron Swartz and Andrew Auernheimer.
The indictment alleged that Kane and Nestor used an exploit on video poker machines to defraud casinos and win money that they were not entitled to, which “exceeded their authorized access” on the machines in violation of the CFAA. Kane, who reportedly spent an extremely significant amount of time playing video poker, discovered a bug in the software of the video poker machine that allowed for him, and later his co-defendant Nestor, to achieve large payouts on certain slot machines through a series of moves where he switched games and made bets at different levels. There is absolutely nothing illegal about pressing buttons on slot machines to change the amount of money you are betting or to switch games you are playing, but the prosecution alleged that doing this exceeded lawful access. The court agreed with the defendants and ruled in favor of their motion to dismiss the CFAA count in the indictment.
The CFAA was enacted in 1986 to protect computers that there was a compelling federal interest in protecting, such as computers owned by the federal government and certain financial institutions. The CFAA has been amended numerous times since it was enacted to cover a broader range of computer related activities and there has been recent discussion on Capitol Hill of amending it further. The CFAA prohibits accessing a computer without proper authorizationor it is used in a manner that exceeds the scope of authorized access. The law has faced steep criticism for being overly broad and allowing prosecutors wide discretion by allowing them to charge individuals who have violated a website’s terms of service.
In November, after filing nine stipulations to continue the trial date, the government filed a motion to dismiss the remaining conspiracy to commit wire fraud charges against both Kane and Nestor because “the government has evaluated the evidence and circumstances surrounding court one [wire fraud conspiracy] and determined that in the interest of justice it should not go forward with the case under the present circumstances.”
Although the charges were ultimately dismissed,the issue remains that these charges never should have been brought in the first place. Kane and Nestor had to deal with open criminal charges against them for nearly three years. There are proper uses for statutes such as the CFAA, but the people and the courts should demand that the government only use them for their intended purposes. Prosecutions taking broad and unjustified interpretations of these statutes are not justified.
Cybersecurity, Federal Criminal (Other), Federal Criminal Procedure, Fraud, White-collar crime
In a key sentencing decision handed down this year, the United States Supreme Court held that the Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines promulgated after he committed the crime and those new provisions result in an increased risk of greater punishment. In addition to clarifying the proper application of different versions of the Sentencing Guidelines, this is a particularly significant decision because the Supreme Court has now held that even post-Booker, an error in calculating merely advisory guidelines ranges still invalidates the sentence.
Marivn Peugh and his cousin Steven Hollewell were charged in 2008 with nine counts of bank fraud in connection with a check kiting scheme from 1999 to 2000 that allegedly caused the bank to suffer over $2 million in losses. Hollewell pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud and was sentenced to one year and one day imprisonment. Peugh pleaded not guilty and went to trial where he testified that he had not intended to defraud the banks. Peugh was nonetheless convicted by the jury of five counts of bank fraud, although he was acquitted of the remaining counts.
At the time of Peugh’s offense (in 1999 and 2000), the 1998 Guidelines were in effect. Under the 1998 Guidelines, the base offense level applicable to his offense was six, and thirteen levels were added for a loss amount of over $2.5 million, creating a total offense level of nineteen. The government argued for an additional two level enhancement for obstruction of justice, which brought the total offense level to 21. Since Peugh was a first time offender in criminal history category I, he had an advisory sentencing range of 37-46 months under the 1998 Guidelines.
When Peugh was sentenced in 2010, the district court applied the 2009 Guidelines which were then in effect. Under the 2009 Guidelines, the base offense level applicable to Peugh’s conduct was now seven, and the enhancement for a loss value of over $2.5 million added an additional eighteen levels. After adding the two level enhancement for obstruction of justice, Peugh’s total offense level under the 2009 Guidelines was 27 – six levels higher than under the 1998 Guidelines. With a criminal history category of I, the advisory range for sentencing was 70-87 months – roughly double the range under the earlier version of the Guidelines. The district court sentenced Peugh to 70 months imprisonment, at the low end of the advisory Guidelines and he appealed the decision.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the sentence from the district court and quickly dismissed Peugh’s argument that the sentence violated the Ex Post Facto Clause. Relying on its own 2006 decision in United States v. Demaree, the Court held that the advisory nature of the Sentencing Guidelines post-Booker makes moot any argument that the application at sentencing of an increased Guidelines range at sentencing was not in effect at the time of the offense violates the Ex Post Facto Clause. This ruling was no surprise given that the Seventh Circuit has reaffirmed this proposition twice since it issued its 2006 ruling in Demaree.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a Circuit split on this issue. On appeal, the focus of the Court’s analysis was on whether the Guidelines – which, post-Booker, are admittedly advisory – are sufficiently material to judges’ decisions about sentencing to warrant application of the Ex Post Facto Clause. In support of his argument, Peugh relied upon empirical evidence showing the judges are indeed influenced in their sentencing decision making by the Guidelines even if those Guidelines are not binding. On the other hand, the government argued that there was no precedential basis for the application of the Ex Post Facto Clause to a provision of law that is merely advisory.
In its holding the Court emphasized that the intent of the Ex Post Facto Clause was that it “ensures that individuals have fair warning of applicable laws and guards against vindictive legislative action.” Even where these concerns are not implicated, the Court held that the Ex Post Facto Clause also “safeguards a fundamental fairness interest.” The Court noted that, while the Guidelines are advisory, judges are still required, under Gall and by statute to begin their sentencing determination by correctly calculating the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range. The Court noted that continued vitality of the Guidelines in encouraging uniformity in sentencing by creating procedural hurdles that make the imposition of a sentence outside the guidelines range less likely. In doing so, the majority rejected the argument in Justice Thomas’ dissent that the advisory nature of the Guidelines means that do not “meaningfully constrain” a judges’ discretion.
The ruling in Peugh provides clear guidance to district judges that the version of the Sentencing Guidelines to be applied is the one in place at the time that the defendant committed his or her conduct constituting an offense. Of course, the Court’s ruling does not resolve how that principle will apply in cases involving charges such as conspiracy that may occur over a substantial period of time during which there may be multiple versions of the Guidelines. That issue and others will undoubtedly be the subject of litigation to come.