Justia White Collar Crime Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Defendants appealed their convictions and the ensuing sentences on multiple counts arising out of their conspiracy to commit access device fraud. On appeal they argued that: (1) law enforcement agents violated their Fourth Amendment rights by illegally entering their house after arresting them; (2) the district court impermissibly lowered the government’s burden of proof during voir dire; (3) the district court erred in applying two-level enhancements to their base offense levels for possessing device-making equipment; (4) the district court erred in applying two-level aggravating-role enhancements; (5) their total sentences were procedurally unreasonable; and, finally, (6) their sentences, overall, were substantively unreasonable.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court the record demonstrates Defendants’ deep involvement in the planning and organization of the fraudulent scheme and their vital role in the commission of the offenses, as well as their involvement in decision-making and recruitment, all of which was far more extensive than the role played by the co-conspirator. To the extent Defendants argue that they could not both receive aggravating-role enhancements since they were equally involved, a defendant eligible for an aggravating-role enhancement “does not have to be the sole leader of the conspiracy for the enhancement to apply.” The district court did not clearly err in applying the aggravating-role enhancements to the brothers’ offense levels. Further, the court wrote that the district court imposed an otherwise substantively reasonable total sentence for each defendant. View "USA v. Igor Grushko, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted on all five counts of a 2011 indictment charging himself and two co-conspirators with a variety of offenses arising from a well-orchestrated scheme to circumvent American export controls designed to prevent dual-use commodities—goods with both civilian and military applications—from falling into the hands of adversaries like Iran. On appeal, Defendant seeks reversal and remand on three independent grounds.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that because of the Government’s diligence and Defendant’s evasiveness, the first two factors in the Barker balancing test weigh decidedly against Defendant’s speedy trial claim. The court wrote this is a case where a defendant who took steps to avoid being caught now faults the Government for not catching him sooner. Further, Defendant’s efforts to avoid apprehension cut against his speedy trial assertion in another way, as well—they betray a lack of diligence in asserting the right. Thus, because the Barker balancing test weighs overwhelmingly against Defendant, the district court was correct to deny his motion to dismiss for lack of speedy trial.   Finally, because the Sixth Amendment does not require a district court to render a particularized dissertation to justify a partial courtroom closure that is reasonable, neutral, and largely trivial (i.e., requiring spectators to watch and listen on live stream rather than in-person), the district court’s partial closure of Defendant’s jury trial was not unconstitutional. View "USA v. Ansari" on Justia Law

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Defendants were convicted by a jury of conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) by interfering with its lawful functions and evasion of payment of taxes. On appeal, Defendants both challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting their convictions and raise challenges to a number of jury instructions.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that the district court’s denial of Defendant’s last-minute continuance request was not an abuse of discretion, and Defendant was not denied the counsel of his choice. Further, because Defendant failed to meaningfully address all four prongs of plain error review either in his opening brief or in reply, his constructive amendment challenge fails.   Further, the court wrote, that viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence showed that Defendant failed to report a substantial amount of income; influenced MyMail to amend its tax return to underreport how much income it distributed to Defendant; converted at least $1 million of income into gold coins; purchased a house with gold coins and transferred it to a trust controlled by a relative; and hid his income in Co-Defendant’s trust accounts and used the concealed funds to pay his living expenses for at least a decade, including during the years that the IRS Agent was contacting Defendants, as Defendant’s IRS power-of-attorney, in an attempt to collect Defendant’s unpaid tax liabilities. Based on the foregoing evidence, a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt both willfulness and an affirmative act of evasion. View "USA v. Selgas" on Justia Law

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Following proceedings in district court, the trial court t entered a final judgment, finding Defendant liable, ordering him to disgorge over $4,000,000 in funds, and placing two of his entities under receivership in order to sell and reorganize assets to repay investors. Later, a federal grand jury sitting in Miami returned a superseding indictment that described consistent with the district court’s findings of fact.   After an extradition request was filed by the United States, the Supreme Court of Brazil allowed him to be extradited. He returned to the United States, and on the eve of trial, following over a year of pretrial proceedings, Defendant entered into a plea agreement, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud. The district court later sentenced Defendant to 220 months’ imprisonment and ordered him to pay $169,177,338 in restitution.   On appeal, Defendant broadly argues: (1) that the custodial sentence imposed and the order of restitution violate the extradition treaty; and (2) that his guilty plea was not made freely and voluntarily. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that the district court fully satisfied the core concerns of Rule 11, and the court could discern no reason to conclude that the district court plainly erred in finding that Defendant’s guilty plea was entered knowingly and voluntarily. The court explained that in this case, the record fully reflects that Defendant agreed to be sentenced subject to a 20-year maximum term, and his 220-month sentence is near the low end of his agreed-upon 210-to-240-month range. View "USA v. John J. Utsick" on Justia Law

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Defendant Brim Bell was convicted by jury on four class A felony counts of theft by deception. Defendant ran a business at several New Hampshire locations restoring primarily Volkswagen vehicles. Between January 1, 2011 and November 17, 2015, each of the victims, A.M., J.M., J.K., and J.T., hired defendant to restore a vehicle. During the time defendant had their vehicles, he repeatedly asked each of the victims to send him more money, ostensibly for parts or other expenses related to the restoration of their vehicles. Each victim made a series of payments to defendant, but none of the victims received a restored car back from defendant. Defendant testified to a series of events that negatively affected his business during 2010 and 2011 and increased his debt. As a result, at the end of 2011, defendant started gambling at casinos. He testified that his “plan was to save the business.” Defendant admitted that he gambled with some of his customers’ money and that none of them gave him permission to do so. Following a jury trial, defendant was convicted on four counts and acquitted on two. He argued on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion for joinder. Finding no reversible error, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed defendant's convictions. View "New Hampshire v. Bell" on Justia Law

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The American subsidiary of Alstom Power, Inc. (“API”), a global power and transportation services company, hired two consultants to bribe Indonesian officials to help secure a $118 million power contract. Defendant, who worked in Paris for API’s United Kingdom subsidiary, was allegedly responsible for approving the selection of the consultants and authorizing payments to them. For his role in the alleged bribery scheme, Defendant was charged in an American court with (among other things) violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act  (“FCPA”), which makes it unlawful for officers, directors, and agents “of a domestic concern” to use interstate commerce corruptly to bribe or attempt to bribe foreign officials. Defendant appealed. Defendant moved for acquittal, arguing he was not an agent within the meaning of the FCPA. The district court granted that motion; the government appealed and Defendant cross-appealed.The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling holding that the district court properly acquitted Defendant under Rule 29 because there was no agency or employee relationship between Defendant and API. The court also affirmed on the cross‐appeal, finding no error in either the district court’s speedy trial analysis or its jury instructions.     The court explained that while there is some evidence that Defendant supported API in his working relationship with the corporation, it is not sufficient to establish that API exercised control over the scope and duration of its relationship with Defendant. Further, the district court’s analysis of the Barker factors and dismissal of Defendant’s Sixth Amendment claim falls “within the range of permissible decisions. View "United States v. Hoskins" on Justia Law

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Defendant Laura Shelly pled no contest to one count of embezzlement by an employee. Pursuant to the negotiated plea, the trial court imposed a five-year term of felony probation. The court also ordered defendant to pay $72,972.47 in restitution. Shelly argued on appeal the length of her probation had to be reduced in light of Assembly Bill No. 1950 (2019-2020 Reg. Sess.) which reduced the maximum length of felony probation to two or three years. She also argued the amount of restitution had to be reduced by $5,816.25. The Court of Appeal agreed, and the State conceded, that Assembly Bill 1950 applied retroactively and entitled defendant to have the length of her probation reduced. The question remaining was whether the State was then entitled to withdraw from the plea agreement. To this, the Court held it was not. The Court also reduced the restitution order by $1,000. View "California v. Shelly" on Justia Law

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Zheng became a permanent U.S. resident in 2004. He was a professor at the University of Southern California, Pennsylvania State University, and The Ohio State University and performed research under National Institute of Health (NIH) grants. Zheng had financial and information-sharing ties to Chinese organizations and received grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Including that information on NIH applications would have derailed Zheng’s funding prospects, so Zheng clouded his ties to China. By 2019, the FBI began investigating Zheng. Zheng left for China but federal agents apprehended him in Anchorage.Zheng pleaded guilty to making false statements, 18 U.S.C. 1001(a)(3). Rejecting an argument that the research Zheng completed offset the amount of money lost, the district court calculated a Guidelines range of 37-46 months and sentenced Zheng to 37 months. On appeal, Zheng argued that his counsel was ineffective by not seeking a downward variance based on Zheng’s immigration status as a deportable alien, which would have an impact on the execution of his sentence. The Sixth Circuit dismissed, noting that the record was inadequate to establish ineffective assistance for the first time on direct appeal. Nothing in the record shows counsel’s reasons for making certain strategic decisions or why he advanced one argument over another. View "United States v. Zheng" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed Appellant's plea of guilty to one count of investment adviser fraud, four counts of wire fraud, and one count of aggravated identity theft, holding that there was no prejudicial error in the proceedings below.On appeal, Appellant argued that her plea was not knowing and voluntary, that the evidence was insufficient to convict her of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, that several sentencing enhancements were improperly applied, and that her counsel was ineffective. The First Circuit affirmed, holding (1) there was no error in the district court's acceptance of Appellant's guilty plea; (2) Appellant's conduct clearly satisfied the statutory requirements for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft; and (3) Appellant's challenges to several aspects of her sentence were unavailing. View "United States v. Kitts" on Justia Law

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Applicant Ray Hicks pled guilty to attempted forgery of a government instrument in 2013 and was sentenced, under a plea agreement, to 180 days of confinement in a state jail facility. Applicant filed this application for a writ of habeas corpus, contending he was actually innocent because subsequent analysis showed the $100 bill he possessed was genuine. Applicant was charged with forgery but ultimately pled guilty to attempted forgery. More than five years later, the United States Secret Service notified the Webster Police Department by letter that Applicant’s $100 bill was genuine. The habeas court found Applicant was actually innocent of the charged offense and any possible lesser included offenses based on newly discovered evidence neither introduced nor available to the defense at trial. Specifically, the habeas court found the State could not have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Applicant had intent to defraud because the bill was not actually forged. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals did not find Applicant was actually innocent, but instead, granted relief on the ground of an involuntary plea. View "Ex parte Ray Hicks" on Justia Law