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The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided the case of United States v. Suarez, which involved charges of “structuring” currency transactions.   Thirty-one U.S.C. § 5313(a) requires banks to file a Currency Transaction Report (CTR) whenever someone conducts a transaction involving more than $10,000 in cash.  Illegal “structuring” occurs when someone conducts multiple transactions to avoid causing a CTR to be filed.  For example, instead of withdrawing $15,000 all at one time, someone who is trying to “structure” the transactions might make three $5,000 withdrawals over the course of several days.  This is a crime.

That’s what the defendant in Suarez did, according to the Fifth Circuit opinion.  An office manager at a real estate company that was under investigation for money laundering drug proceeds, the defendant would use her personal account to buy cashier’s checks made out to the company in amounts less than $10,000, and the company would reimburse her.  The opinion doesn’t say why the defendant was making these transactions, but money laundering was strongly suggested.  The defendant was ultimately convicted at trial and sentenced to 13 months in prison and a forfeiture of $52,042.

The discussion of the forfeiture is the most interesting part of the Suarez opinion.  The defendant appealed the forfeiture order, claiming that it was excessive under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines. She also argued that the money involved in the offense was not her personal money, and so it would be unfair to require her to forfeit $52,000 of her own funds.

The Court rejected both of these arguments.  With regard to ownership of the money involved in the crime, the Court noted, first, that there was no evidence in the record showing who exactly the money had belonged to, and, second, that the District Court had concluded the defendant acted in reckless disregard for whether she was involved in money laundering.  It was therefore appropriate to order the forfeiture of her personal funds.

Regarding the general objection that the forfeiture was excessive in amount, the Fifth Circuit applied the test from United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998), the lead Supreme Court case on excessive fines.  Under Bajakajian, the Fifth Circuit considers the following factors when determining whether the fine or forfeiture is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense:  “(1) the essence of the defendant’s crime and its  relationship  to  other  criminal  activity;  (2)  whether  the  defendant  was  within the class of people for whom the statute of conviction was principally designed; (3) the maximum sentence, including the fine that could have been imposed;  and  (4)  the  nature  of  the  harm  resulting  from  the  defendant’s  conduct.” United States v. Mora, 644 F. App’x 316, 317 (5th Cir. 2016).

Applying these factors to the Suarez situation, the Court noted that the forfeiture amount was significantly less than the maximum allowed as a fine under the structuring statute (up to $250,000).  The forfeiture amount was also less than double that recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines.  Although double the recommended amount sounds like a lot, the Fifth Circuit’s case law has permitted forfeitures that were many times the amount recommended by the Guidelines.  Finally, there were many signs and indications that the Suarez defendant had been engaged in money laundering, and so she was not an innocent victim of government overreach.  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the sentence of the District Court, including a forfeiture in the amount of $52,042.

Today, the Fifth Circuit release two new opinions in civil rights cases.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in these cases, in both the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and held that the defendants were entitled to have the case dismissed under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  The doctrine of qualified immunity “shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violates a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”  As these cases demonstrate, the doctrine can provide powerful protection against civil rights claims.

In the first case, Wigginton v. Jones, a university professor filed suit after he was denied tenure at the Mississippi state college where he taught.  He claimed that the tenure process had proceeded in an arbitrary and capricious fashion, and a jury had agreed and awarded him $200,000 in back pay and mental and emotional damages after a trial.  Given the jury award, there was obviously something disturbing about the professor had been treated.  However, the defendants appealed the verdict, and the Fifth Circuit held that the professor-plaintiff had not had a clearly established property interest in his job such that he could claim his rights had been violated.  The Circuit noted that the due process clause of the US Constitution protects life, liberty, and property, but it is state law that defines whether someone has a property interest in some aspect of their employment that must be protected.  In this case, the Court held that it was not clearly established that Mississippi law provided the professor a property interest in a fair tenure review process.  Therefore, the defendant officials were entitled to qualified immunity and the jury verdict had to be reversed.

In the second case, Baldwin v. Dorsey, the plaintiff had been found incoherent in her car, stopped at a red light.  EMS and the police were called.  Ultimately, the defendant officer had arrested the plaintiff and taken her to the police station to conduct a blood test to see if she was intoxicated.  En route, the plaintiff claimed to have told the officer she was feeling suicidal and asked to be taken to the hospital.  The defendant officer declined to do that, and instead kept the plaintiff monitored and incapacitated from harming herself for approximately three hours by handcuffing her to a bench at the station.  The woman was eventually taken for a psychiatric evaluation.  She later sued, claiming the three hour delay in bringing her to the hospital had traumatized her.  Her claim was premised on the well-established law that an officer cannot be “deliberately indifferent” to a known risk of harm to a person who is in their custody.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fifth Circuit granted qualified immunity for the officer.  The Court found that because the plaintiff had been monitored and handcuffed during the three hour period, she did not actually face a risk of suicide during that period.  The Court also found that, under the circumstances presented in this case, it was not clearly established that the officer needed to take the defendant to the hospital immediately.  The Court distinguished another recent Fifth Circuit case which had denied qualified immunity where a teenager in a drug-induced psychotic state had repeatedly slammed his head into the back window of a police cruiser.  Although it was clear in that prior case the officers should have taken the teenager for medical treatment, the same could not be said for plaintiff Baldwin.

 

This past week I was honored to receive the Outstanding Section or Division Leader Award from the Federal Bar Association.  Presented during the FBA’s annual meeting (held this year in Tampa, FL), the award resulted from my on-going work as the chair of the FBA’s Civil Rights Section.  You can see a quick video of Nate Olin presenting the award (thanks Nate!) and a picture of the award itself below.  Thank you very much to everyone involved in the FBA for this award, but I’d especially like to thank Wylie Stecklow, the immediate past chair of the Section, for all the work he has put in re-invigorating the Civil Rights Section, and also Robin Wiley, the current chair-elect, for the support she’s shown me during my tenure.  And because the work of the Section is truly a team effort, I’d be remiss not to thank all of the other board members who have kept the Section active (Eric Foley, Steven Dane, Rob Sinsheimer, Kyle Kaiser, Eileen Rosen, Kevin Golembiewski, Caryl Oberman, Bonnie Kift, Lindsey Rubinstein).   Thanks to all.

FBA award 2019

FBA 2019 Haedicke award

In late 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which became law when the President signed it on December 21, 2018.  Although it is literally just a first step in the process of true criminal justice reform, the Act nevertheless contains a number of very significant reforms for people involved in the federal criminal justice system.  Here are a few highlights:

— The First Step Act restricts the types of prior drug felonies that can be used to enhance sentences for drug offenses under federal law.  Under prior law, any prior drug felony could be used to enhance sentences.  Now, only a “serious drug felony” can be used to enhance a sentence.  A “serious drug felony” is defined as one for which the person actually served a term of imprisonment of more than 12 months within 15 years of the current offense.

— The First Step Act substantially reduces the mandatory minimum penalties applicable to many drug crimes.

— The Act broadens the applicability of the “safety valve” provision in federal sentencing law, which permits courts to sentence some defendants to less than the mandatory minimum for their offense if the defendant meets certain criteria.  The new law allows some offenders with significantly higher criminal history scores to obtain the benefits of the safety valve provision in certain circumstances.

— The First Step Act prohibits “stacking” of 924(c) charges.  A violation of 18 USC 924(c) occurs when someone uses a firearm in the course of another crime.  A first offense has a mandatory minimum of 5 years, which must be served consecutively to any other sentence.  With a second offense, the mandatory minimum jumps to 25 years.  Under prior law, a person could be subject to the 25 year minimum if the government could prove the person had used a gun twice in two separate crimes, even if the person had not previously been charged and convicted of the first crime before they were charged with the second.  Now, there has to be a conviction for one 924(c) charge in a separate indictment before someone can be subjected to the enhanced mandatory minimum.  In other words, the enhanced minimum cannot be applied where the government “stacks” multiple 924(c) charges in one indictment.

On February 15, 2019, the Federal Bar Association’s Civil Rights Section presented its second bi-annual Civil Rights CLE, the Civil Rights Etouffee.  As the Chair of the Section, I both helped to organize the Etouffee and served as a moderator during a panel discussion of civil rights cases based on the overdetention of state prisoners (attorneys Emily Washington and William Most provided the substantive information regarding these types of cases).  With over 100 attendees coming to participate in the program, it was once again a sold-out success.  Here are some pictures from the event– please feel free to contact me if you are interested in attending the next Civil Rights Etouffee in New Orleans.

In December 2018, I was honored to speak on a panel of attorneys regarding prosecutions of public officials in Louisiana.  The panel was part of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ annual Last Chance Seminar, and the other panelists were Catherine Maraist (Baton Rouge), John McLindon (Baton Rouge), and Elton Richey (Shreveport).  The discussion was guided by a Powerpoint presentation– which I’ve attached below– that I put together after brainstorming with the other panelists regarding common types of statutes used to prosecute public officials.  As is evident from the complexity of the statutes involved, defending these types of cases is difficult business, and the stakes are obviously quite high.  I think everyone who attended the presentation, including me, learned something new about how to successfully defend against these types of white-collar prosecutions.

Public Corruption Laws and Cases- Louisiana- 2018 LACDL

 

 

In 2017, Louisiana embarked on a bold reform of its criminal justice system, dubbed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act.  The new law made substantial changes to the criminal justice system in Louisiana, many of which will result in lessening of Louisiana’s notoriously high imprisonment rates.  Sentencing guidelines for many non-violent offenses were reduced, and there were substantial changes to Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Law.

There is an excellent guide to the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act available at the Louisiana State Bar’s website or by following the link below.

https://www.lsba.org/NewsArticle.aspx?Article=855959d5-9538-4272-bc73-055ad4b9fe64

On November 6, 2018, in the case of Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to state and local governments regardless of the number of employees they have.  This contrasts with private employers, who must have at least 20 employees to be covered under the ADEA.

The ADEA protects people from “arbitrary age discrimination” in employment.  In the Mount Lemmon case, a fire district faced with financial difficulties fired its two oldest firemen, age 46 and 54, who then brought the suit.  The district court ruled against the firemen, holding that the ADEA did not cover the fire district because it had less than 20 employees.  Now that the Supreme Court has reversed that ruling, the case is free to proceed to trial.