A recent indictment in a state court in La Plata County, Colorado, has ruffled feathers in the defense bar. The accused was one of our own, criminal defense attorney Brian Schowalter. The charge was based on Schowalter’s refusal to turn over evidence he ostensibly held for a client. The evidence, an original letter, was apparently relevant to a homicide investigation involving the attorney’s client (though it appears that this material was not protected by attorney-client privilege).
This is the kind of scenario that keeps defense lawyers awake at night: might you someday face criminal charges for aggressively protecting the interests of your client? So when Schowalter appeared in court to be formally advised of the felony charge against him, it was not too surprising that 10 criminal defense lawyers sat behind him in an apparent show of solidarity, and to signal to prosecutors that they will not buckle easily to pressure.
While few facts about the matter have been publicized, the central question for many is why would the prosecutor choose such a drastic approach?
The indictment charges Schowalter with unlawfully tampering with physical evidence in a homicide investigation. The prosecutor in the matter argues that he used every means available to obtain the evidence. (It would be nice to know exactly what procedural steps the prosecutor undertook before unleashing the proverbial nuclear bomb.) When the prosecutor subpoenaed the letter, Schowalter asserted his Fifth Amendment rights.
It is not clear from the facts currently available, but it is possible that Schowalter’s actions would support a disciplinary proceeding for potential ethics violations. Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct provide that a lawyer shall not “unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence or unlawfully . . . conceal a document or other material having potential evidentiary value.” So why didn’t the prosecutor report Schowalter’s alleged misconduct to the Colorado bar? That would be a more typical – and arguably more appropriate – response to potential issues of professional misconduct.
Did the prosecutor take such a heavy-handed approach because of Schowalter’s decision to assert his Fifth Amendment rights? It seems a bit unusual for a defense attorney to plead the Fifth in response to a demand for client documents. Schowalter’s response implies an admission that his previous action of withholding the letter could lead to more serious charges, an action that may have invited an already-irritated prosecutor to pursue criminal charges rather than a state bar action.
The lesson from this case may be: if you believe that client documents in your possession are legally protectable, fight vigorously by employing the procedural mechanisms available (e.g., a motion to quash). But don’t invite a bigger battle through obstinacy. Of course, if the defense bar continues to hold its line in the matter, there may be a lesson or two for the prosecutor, starting with a road map to a more appropriate legal action – based on ethics sanctions as opposed to criminal penalties.
Florida judges acknowledge that “justice requires the appearance of justice.” And given some of the controversial verdicts coming out of the Sunshine State — Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman come to mind — it seems more important than ever for the Florida judiciary to protect its institutional integrity. That might explain why the Florida Supreme Court doubled the recommended suspension of a state prosecutor who failed to disclose numerous ex parte contacts with a sitting judge.
On June 20, that court upheld a finding that Howard Scheinberg engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice. The disciplinary action against Scheinberg pertained to the prosecution of Omar Loureiro. In 2007, Scheinberg was the lead prosecutor in a capital murder trial against Loureiro. Former Judge Ana Gardiner was the presiding judge. As a result of that trial, Loureiro was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Months after the trial concluded, evidence surfaced that Scheinberg had been romantically involved with the judge. During the five months between the jury verdict and sentencing hearing, Scheinberg and Gardiner had exchanged more than 900 phone calls and more than 400 text messages. On average, Scheinberg had communicated with the judge almost 10 times a day during that time but had never disclosed the contacts to opposing counsel.
When the Broward State Attorney’s office learned of the misconduct, it promptly agreed to retry Loureiro: only a second trial could dispel public perceptions that Loureiro had been denied due process.
When the Florida State Bar learned of the misconduct, it promptly initiated disciplinary action. After the complaint was filed, a referee was appointed. She conducted a hearing and issued a report with her findings and recommendations. First, the referee found that Scheinberg’s ex parte contacts and his failure to disclose them prejudiced the judicial system in violation of Florida’s ethics rules. Based on her findings of aggravating and mitigating factors, she recommended a one-year suspension from the practice of law.
Scheinberg challenged the referee’s recommendation as to guilt and the one-year suspension, but received no relief. Instead, the Supreme Court agreed that Scheinberg was guilty of misconduct, even though his contacts with the judge were unrelated to Loureiro’s murder trial. The court explained that Scheinberg’s extensive contacts with Judge Gardiner created “an appearance of impropriety.”
When an attorney becomes romantically involved with the judge presiding over his case, “the judge’s authority necessarily suffers,” the court concluded. First, the relationship itself undercuts the judge’s role as a detached neutral party. Moreover, when a judge presides over cases involving her romantic partner, she loses her single most important source of authority — the perception that she is absolutely impartial.
The court then addressed the recommended sanction. Although it found no error with the referee’s findings on aggravating and mitigating factors, the court held that a one-year suspension was not sufficient. Scheinberg’s conduct created an appearance of impropriety based on substantial communications that were never disclosed to the defense. And it all occurred in the context of a capital murder trial!
The resulting harm was obvious: Scheinberg’s conduct led to an investigation and a retrial, both of which consumed public and private resources. In the court’s view, the seriousness of Scheinberg’s violation and resulting prejudice to the administration of justice required a suspension twice as long. On that basis, the court suspended Scheinberg for two years and ordered him to cover the Florida Bar’s costs.
A recent decision by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in the Eastern District of New York may be the harbinger of new limits on the government’s ability to use a prosecutorial tool of which it has become very fond lately – the deferred prosecution agreement. Judge Gleeson’s assertion that a district court has a right to approve or disapprove the use of a DPA in a criminal case has the potential to change entirely the way in which the government uses these agreements.
The government frequently uses DPAs in criminal cases against large companies as a means of leveraging the threat of criminal conviction to get the company to correct practices that the government believes to be illegal.
A DPA is a formal written agreement that customarily provides that criminal proceedings against the company will be held in abeyance for a period of years during which the company agrees to take steps, subject to monitoring, to correct its past misdeeds. The DPA is commonly filed along with a criminal information that commences a criminal case, and the parties then request that the court stay any proceedings in the case for the period defined in the DPA. If the company complies with the terms of the DPA, the government will dismiss the case at the conclusion of that period.
Because the government implements a DPA through the commencement of a criminal proceeding, however, it must contend with the application of the speedy trial statute during the period of deferral. The parties usually request jointly that the time period be excluded from the calculation of the 70-day period within which the trial must otherwise commence pursuant to statute. 18 U.S.C. § 3161(c)(1).
In United States v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 12-CR-763 (E.D.N.Y.), the government filed an information on December 11, 2012, charging HSBC Bank USA, N.A. with violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 U.S.C. § 5311 et seq. (including, among other things, willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering policy) and with willfully facilitating financial transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. §§ 1702 & 1705 and the Trading with the Enemy Act, 50 U.S.C. App. §§ 3, 5, 16. On that same day, the government also filed a DPA, a Statement of Facts, and a Corporate Compliance Monitor agreement. The government filed these documents as exhibits to a letter requesting that the court hold the case in abeyance for five years in accordance with the terms of the DPA and that the court exclude that time from the speedy trial clock.
In responding to this request, Judge Gleeson surprised the parties by asserting that he had the authority not only to rule on the request to exclude time from the speedy trial clock, but also to accept or reject the DPA itself. In a written opinion issued on July 1, 2013, Judge Gleeson acknowledged that the court’s authority did not stem from Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(A) (dealing with plea agreements to predetermined sentences) or from Section 6B1.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (which addresses policy statements on the acceptance of such pleas). Rather, Judge Gleeson concluded that the court’s general supervisory power over criminal cases – to ensure that the integrity and fairness of those proceedings – vested the court with authority to approve or reject the DPA.
In so concluding, Judge Gleeson noted that the government retains “absolute discretion not to prosecute,” and noted that a non-prosecution agreement “is not the business of the courts.” Judge Gleeson further noted that the government “has near-absolute power under Fed. R. Crim. P. 48(a) to extinguish a case that it has brought.” But once the government and the defendant chose to build into their DPA the filing and maintenance of a criminal prosecution – albeit one expected to be held in abeyance – the government gave up its largely unfettered discretion. “There is nothing wrong with that,” Judge Gleeson observed, “but a pending federal criminal case is not window dressing.”
“Nor is the Court,” Judge Gleeson noted, using Brendan Sullivan’s famous observation from the Iran-Contra hearings, “a potted plant.” If the parties chose to seek the court’s imprimatur on the DPA by involving the court in the process, they also subjected the DPA to the review and approval of the court pursuant to its supervisory authority over its proceedings.
Judge Gleeson’s self-described “novel” application of the court’s supervisory powers in this context is part of a pattern of increased judicial scrutiny of certain tools used in obtaining the cooperation of companies that are the focus of criminal investigations. Judge Gleeson noted the recent history of cases in which efforts to gain corporate cooperation had run afoul of companies’ attorney-client privilege and work product protections or its employees’ Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights, and noted that there are other hypothetical situations in which a company’s obligation to cooperate could be used in an improper manner.
Ultimately, Judge Gleeson approved the DPA in this case but also noted that the court’s approval was subject to continued monitoring of its execution and implementation.
If other judges follow Judge Gleeson’s lead, this may signal a change in the way in which prosecutors use DPAs. Historically, a DPA permitted the government to retain virtually unlimited discretion in its dealings with the party that entered into that agreement. To the extent that courts will now be more alert to potential abuses of cooperation arrangements, DPAs may be fairer to companies but may also become less attractive to prosecutors.
In asserting authority to approve or reject a DPA, Judge Gleeson readily acknowledged the broad discretion of the Executive Branch in exercising prosecutorial discretion. But if DPAs continue to incorporate the filing of criminal informations that are then held in abeyance, the courts may indeed be more than just drop-boxes for those filings – or more than just potted plants.
Federal Criminal Procedure
For all its benefits, social media has posed some significant challenges for our criminal justice system. One of the more common problems – Internet-related juror misconduct – has been the subject of numerous criminal appeals lately. It has also burdened federal and state governments with added costs for misconduct hearings and retrials. It is no wonder, then, that the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office in Ohio took swift and decisive action when confronted with Internet-related misconduct by one of its own.
Cleveland-area prosecutor Aaron Brockler was recently fired for contacting trial witnesses on Facebook to dissuade them from providing testimony on behalf of defendant Damon Dunn. Dunn was on trial for aggravated murder in connection with a May 2012 shooting, and Brockler was lead prosecutor on the case.
Before trial, the defense team notified Brockler that two of Dunn’s former girlfriends were prepared to provide an alibi for the defendant, testifying that he was on the other side of town when the murder victim was shot. Brockler was concerned that Dunn might walk free, so the prosecutor decided to contact the witnesses on Facebook. First, Brockler created a fake Facebook profile and “friended” the alibi witnesses. In a series of chats, Brockler told the witnesses he was the defendant’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of Dunn’s child. According to Brockler, the women went “crazy” at the news. As a result, one witness decided she would not lie for Dunn, and the other admitted she wasn’t with him when the crime occurred.
The witnesses later complained that they were being harassed on Facebook. Investigators in the Prosecutor’s Office traced the online activity to Brockler’s office computer. Ultimately, Brockler admitted to his online chats with the women, but denied any wrongdoing. According to him, “[l]aw enforcement, including prosecutors, have long engaged in the practice of using a ruse to obtain the truth.” Brockler’s former colleagues disagreed. County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said it best: “By creating false evidence, lying to witnesses as well as to another prosecutor, Aaron Brockler damaged the prosecution’s chances in a murder case where a totally innocent man was killed at his work.”
After Brockler was fired, the entire prosecutor’s office was recused from the case, and the matter was handed over to the office of Ohio’s attorney general. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for July 11.
Many laypersons are unaware (and many lawyers forget) that, as officers of the court, lawyers are prohibited from making false statements of material fact or law. It is true that in limited circumstances, police officers are permitted to lie to suspects about the nature of the evidence in their possession and similar matters, but police officers are not considered officers of the court and are subject to cross-examination as witnesses; this is not true of prosecutors.
In Ohio, as in every other U.S. jurisdiction, attorneys admitted to the practice of law are required to be truthful. In particular, Rule 4.1(a) of the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct states that, in the course of representing a client, a lawyer “shall not knowingly . . . make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.” Lawyers are also bound by certain restrictions on communications with a third party depending on whether or not the third party is represented by counsel.
Brockler’s Facebook chats violated Ohio’s requirement for truthfulness in the course of representation because Brockler conducted the chats using a fake profile. Brockler contacted the defense witnesses by posing as Dunn’s fictitious ex-girlfriend and the mother of Dunn’s child; he used the misrepresentations to foment the witnesses’ anger against the defendant so they would change their testimony or refuse to testify on his behalf.
One could argue that Brockler’s deception seemed to aid the search for truth in Dunn’s case, but the deception might just as easily frustrate the search for truth in another case. The rules avoid this problem by prohibiting a lawyer’s knowing deception across the board.
If Brockler’s ruse had not been discovered, it may have helped him win a conviction. But there are crucial societal values that also must be upheld and that are more important than winning a conviction at all costs.
On May 28, 2013, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging seven men with allegedly operating an organization known as “Liberty Reserve,” which prosecutors allege was established for the sole purpose of creating an illegal digital currency that could be used to launder money. This is a case that anyone involved in businesses that rely in any way on bitcoins will definitely want to watch.
Prosecutors say that Liberty Reserve was used to aid in identity theft, computer hacking, and other illegal activities. The indictment alleged that Liberty Reserve was responsible for laundering more than $6 billion over the last seven years through 55 million transactions. The company allegedly has about one million users across the globe, including 200,000 in the United States.
The indictment comes just a few months after the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury, issued new guidelines stating that virtual currency exchanges should follow traditional money laundering rules. Virtual currencies, such as the well-known bitcoin, account for only a small percentage of global financial transactions, but their popularity is growing rapidly.
Like bitcoin, Liberty Reserve operated as a virtual currency exchange; however, there are some key differences between bitcoin exchanges and Liberty Reserve. Bitcoin transactions operate in a more transparent way than transactions on Liberty Reserve did. Bitcoin transactions are stored in a public ledger called a “block chain” to keep people from writing the equivalent of a bad check with bitcoins. It is that same public block chain that makes it possible to trace transactions years after they have occurred.
Earlier this month, federal authorities cracked down on Mt. Gox, the world’s largest bitcoin exchange. The basis of the crackdown on Mt. Gox was a failure to properly register as a money transmitter. There were no allegations by law enforcement that bitcoin currency itself violated state or federal law. Indeed, the Treasury Department regulations reflect that such currency is lawful, but subject to regulation.
This month’s actions by federal authorities against Mt. Gox and Liberty Reserve clearly show that law enforcement is monitoring virtual currency exchanges. Although there is no immediate reason to believe that a properly registered bitcoin exchange violates state or federal law, those companies operating virtual currency or bitcoin exchanges should be aware that law enforcement is following this trend and capable of quickly reacting to perceived violations of the law.
On May 31, the House Committee on Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will begin a six-month investigation to determine whether the U.S. Code over-criminalizes relatively minor conduct. The bipartisan task force, composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, will conduct hearings and review thousands of federal criminal statutes for purposes of recommending consensus-based improvements to federal criminal law.
Legislators of all political stripes recognize the need for reform. Experts estimate that the U.S. Code contains 4,500 federal crimes and up to 300,000 regulations that provide for the imposition of criminal penalties. One-third of all federal criminal statutes were added to the U.S. Code within the last 30 years. This recent explosion in federal criminal law has added significant costs for prosecution, resolution, and incarceration. Sometimes Congress enacts new laws that overlap with existing state law, thus transferring enforcement costs from the states to the federal government.
Over-criminalization also burdens individuals. Indeed, the labyrinth of federal criminal statutes and regulations seriously undermines a basic tenet of criminal law — that people should have fair notice of what is against the law. Stories abound to show that the presumption can be as unrealistic as the real-world consequences are devastating:
• In 2003, Texas senior citizen George Norris was indicted in Miami for importing mislabeled orchids in violation of an international treaty as implemented by the Endangered Species Act. After pleading guilty to the charges, Norris was sentenced to 17 months in prison — part of which he served in solitary confinement — and two years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay an assessment of $700. Although he had no prior record, the orchid-gardener-turned-felon cannot vote, own a gun, or keep alcohol in his home.
• In 2007, Lawrence Lewis was charged with discharging pollutants in violation of the Clean Water Act. Formerly the chief engineer at a military retirement home near D.C., Lewis made the ill-advised but well-intentioned decision to divert backed-up sewage into an outside storm drain to prevent flooding in an area where the military home’s most vulnerable residents lived. Lewis mistakenly believed that the storm drain emptied into a waste-treatment facility; instead, the drain emptied into a creek that feeds the Potomac River. Lewis decided the risks associated with fighting the charge were too great, so he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine.
• In 2011, 11-year old Skylar Capo rescued a baby woodpecker near Fredericksburg, Va. Two weeks later, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traveled to the girl’s home to cite her for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine, or both. The federal agent confirmed that Skylar had already released the bird and canceled the citation. But the automated system processed the citation anyway, so Skylar received a notice requiring her to pay a $535 fine and threatening possible jail time. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service apologized for the error, the case illustrates the potential for abuse that exists due to over-criminalization.
No doubt, the task force will investigate ways to minimize such absurd results. It remains to be seen whether the investigation will produce meaningful change. On one hand, there is reason for hope: efforts to address over-criminalization have broad support among Republicans, Democrats, and a diverse coalition of groups including the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Bar Association.
On the other hand, history suggests that change will not come easy. The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security conducted a hearing on over-criminalization almost four years ago, but congressional efforts to address the problem never gained traction. For example, current Task Force member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is a sponsor of the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act, which would reduce the federal criminal code by one-third and otherwise consolidate and streamline federal criminal law.
Sensenbrenner introduced versions of the bill in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2011, but none was enacted. He reportedly intends to reintroduce the bill this year. If the task force and its supporters are able to raise awareness of how over-criminalization burdens society and individual liberties, legislators on both sides of the aisle may find the political capital they need to get something done.
Federal Criminal (Other)
Justice may or may not be blind; but she can buckle under pressure. It may take years, millions of dollars and armies of attorneys, but if you have the resources to test her mettle, you too may tip the balance in your favor.
Almost seven years after his conviction on fraud and other charges, former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling may finally be succeeding in his effort to cut down his prison sentence that was originally set at more than 24 years. His investment in his battle is nothing short of impressive. He apparently spent some $70 million on his defense in the underlying trial that ended in 2006 … and that doesn’t include the subsequent seven years of activity, which involves more than 1300 docket entries as of March 2013.
Skilling’s persistence may be paying off. The Department of Justice recently issued a notice on a proposed sentencing agreement with Skilling. (The notice provided that victims have until April 17, 2013, to express their views on the prospective agreement. No further timetables have been officially set.)
It may seem surprising that the Justice Department would consider entering a sentencing agreement with someone who has already been convicted and sentenced and is serving time. But this is a product of Skilling’s aggressive efforts since his conviction, which have resulted in several appearances before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and in one successful trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2009, the Fifth Circuit vacated Skilling’s sentence – which is where the recently announced sentencing agreement comes into play. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that one of the legal theories behind Skilling’s conviction (the honest-services fraud theory) was unconstitutionally vague and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to decide whether any of the charges should be invalidated.
After more yo-yoing between courts (the Fifth Circuit upheld the conviction in 2011, the Supreme Court declined to hear a second subsequent appeal in 2012, and Skilling renewed his request for a new trial based on new evidence after the failed Supreme Court appeal), the Justice Department may be raising a white flag of sorts and opting to settle upon a sentence that is mutually acceptable to Skilling and prosecutors. The DOJ may be unwilling to spend more public resources on a man who won’t go away until he gets his way.
It is hard to say what the sentencing agreement will provide. We previously opined that in resentencing, the judge could sentence Skilling to somewhere between 15 and 30 years under the sentencing guidelines. Obviously a more stringent sentence than the previous 24-year sentence is not going to be the result of the prospective agreement between Skilling and the DOJ. Regardless of the terms, the agreement will need to be approved by the sentencing judge. And he will invariably have to balance, along with the scales of justice, the public outcry if the sentence is too light and the costs of continuing to do battle with Skilling.
We have previously reported in this space about the use of domain name seizures by American law enforcement – for example, here and here. Recent media reports show that domain name seizure has become the go-to tactic for law enforcement for other countries as well.
Canadian police made a series of arrests during an invitation-only Super Bowl party attended by 2300 people as part of Project Amethyst. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesperson says this was connected with the arrest of 21 individuals related to a separate online credit betting operation in November. The more recent arrests were connected with an online sports betting operation that used the website located at www.platinumsb.com. In addition to arresting six individuals, officers also seized $2.5 million in cash as a result of the execution of nine search warrants in and around Toronto.
Police also seized the domain name associated with a Costa Rica-based website, which is registered with Washington State-based Enom, Inc. Police obtained a Canadian court order for that purpose, and then submitted a request under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between Canada and the United States. The domain name was then transferred to the control of Canadian law enforcement authorities who, in turn, redirected it to a new landing page. Visitors to the platinumsb.com website are now greeted by a notice stating that the web site has been “restrained by court order granted to the Attorney General of Ontario.”
Media reports indicate that the website was back online as www.platinumsb.tk within hours of the shutdown. The .tk top level domain belongs to Tokelau, a non-self-governing territory off the coast of New Zealand. The .tk version of the domain name was reportedly registered in 2004, suggesting that the group operating the sports book had set up contingency plans for a seizure of its .com website.
Whatever the merits of the Canadian prosecution against individuals affiliated with PlatinumSB, the seizure of the platinumsb.com domain name certainly shows that domain name seizure is by no means a tactic used only by U.S. law enforcement. As more and more businesses move largely or exclusively to the Internet, the global use of this law enforcement tactic is sure to grow.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, has indicated that she is drafting legislation that would seek to increase judicial oversight over prosecutors’ efforts to act against Internet domain names accused of copyright infringement. While the value of such legislation will depend on the details of the bill, the notion of creating greater control over prosecutorial seizure of domain names is laudable.
Lofgren is one of a small number of legislators who voted against the PRO-IP Act of 2008, which authorized the government to shut down websites accused of online piracy or copyright violations by seizing their domain names. Under the enforcement operation that followed passage of that Act – dubbed “Operation In Our Sites” – the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has seized 1,630 domain names, of which 684 have been forfeited to the government. The increasing use of domain name seizures in this area tracks similar use of this tool in other areas of law enforcement such as internet gaming and online pharmaceutical sales.
Specifics about the contemplated legislation have not been disclosed, though Lofgren has been quoted as noting that there are “reasonable arguments” that the way in which the government has seized domain names under the PRO-IP Act violates the Constitution. Lofgren’s bill will apparently propose that the government must provide notice and an opportunity to be heard before domain names are seized or redirected.
The addition of a procedural requirement for notice and hearing prior to domain name seizure would clearly be a favorable development. There have been cases in which the government has seized a domain name and later permitted it to resume operations, under agreed-upon restrictions, pursuant to an arrangement with the affected business. To the extent that businesses may negotiate such arrangements with the government, those arrangements could be reached without the potentially devastating interruption of a seizure. By giving counsel for the affected business the opportunity to be heard, such a requirement may also chill the overuse of domain name seizure by government as a means of gaining unfair leverage in cases involving Internet-based businesses.
The devil, of course, is in the details. Lofgren has reportedly sought input from the online social media community on this bill – particularly from Reddit. Hopefully, she will also seek input from those members of the legal community who have been involved in litigation over domain name seizures as well in order to ensure that the bill presented for consideration is as effective as possible in balancing the interests of all affected parties.
A recent interpretation of the federal bank fraud statute by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit may prove to be a useful check to overreaching by federal prosecutors, who have tended to use that statute in the past as a catch-all law enforcement tool.
In United States v. Nkansah, the Court reviewed the conviction of a defendant for bank fraud and other crimes arising from a scheme in which the defendant and others stole identification information and used that information to file fraudulent tax returns from which they obtained tax refunds. The depositing of the refund checks involved forgery of endorsements and/or the use of false identification.
On appeal, the defendant challenged his bank fraud conviction on the ground that the government had failed to carry its burden of proof that he intended to victimize the banks, as opposed to the U.S. Treasury that issued the refund checks. Defendant argued that no such evidence of intent to defraud a bank was presented, nor did the government prove that the banks themselves actually lost any money.
The court agreed. In its opinion reversing the bank fraud conviction, the appeals court noted that “the bank fraud statute is not an open-ended, catch-all statute encompassing every fraud involving a transaction with a financial institution” but rather “a specific intent crime requiring proof of an intent to victimize a bank by fraud.” For this reason, the court specifically held that “[t]he government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant intended to expose the banks to losses,” and noted that, if that intent were proved, there was no need for proof of actual or even possible loss.
The court noted that the evidence upon which the government relied – conversations among the participants about avoiding detection by the banks – was not sufficient to satisfy this required element of proof. The court acknowledged that, in some cases, the fact that a bank may suffer a loss based on the negotiation of a check with a forged endorsement permits an inference of intent. But, in this case, given that the checks at issue were genuine Treasury checks, the actual exposure of a bank to losses is “unclear, remote, or non-existent” because the banks could be deemed to be holders in due course of the checks, with the risk of loss borne entirely by the Treasury. Under such circumstances, the permissible inference urged by the government was far from sufficient to constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s intent.
The Second Circuit’s holding in this case is significant because of federal prosecutors’ frequent use of bank fraud charges when banks were part of the transactions included in the allegedly wrongful conduct but were not the intended victims of that conduct. Prosecutors like the bank fraud statute because it carries a hefty maximum statutory sentence of 30 years imprisonment. Bank fraud can also form the predicate (as it did in Nkansah) for other charges such as aggravated identity theft – a crime for which probation is prohibited and for which a defendant must receive a consecutive sentence to the punishment he receives for conviction of any other offense. By holding prosecutors to the strict requirements of the bank fraud statute, the Second Circuit may limit the ability of federal law enforcement to use that statute as leverage in its prosecutions.
Federal Criminal (Other)