Articles Posted in Federal Trial Issues

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Focia’s conviction arose from his sale of firearms on the dark web. He was charged with a violation of 18 USC section 922(a)(1) for transferring firearms to a resident of a state other than his own without a federal firearms license in violation of 18 USC section 922(a)(5). In his appeal he challenged the sufficiency of the evidence arguing that the government failed to prove that he and each transferee were not residents of the same state at the timer of each sale. He claimed that the government failed to prove that Focia was a resident of Alabama, a different state than where the buyers lived in Nebraska and New Jersey. He argued that the government only established only that Focia used to live in Alabama at some point before the firearm sales and that he was present in Alabama several times over the span of two years.

The court of appeals rejected this challenge finding that the government introduced sufficient evidence of Focia’s residence at the time of the sale to sustain his conviction. The government presented evidence directly tying Focia to Alabama including his driver’s license showing an address in Alabama that did not expire until three months after Focia completed his transaction with the buyer and documents from E-trade Financial and a pawn shop in Alabama bearing Focia’s name and address in Alabama. Additionally, the government introduced powerful circumstantial evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that Focia resided in Alabama at the time he shipped firearms to undercover agents located in the two states.

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Max Jeri was convicted and sentencing for importing 7.95 kilograms of cocaine into the United States after he arrived from Lima Peru at the Miami International Airport.  The evidence produced at trial showed that after his arrival in the Miami Airport a Customs and Border Patrol Officer inspected his luggage and discovered cocaine secreted in various items in his luggage including children’s jackets, notebooks, purses, and pillows. He gave the officers the person for whom he was transporting the items and was a travel agent and a long time friend who offered him a free round trip ticket to Peru and in exchange she asked him to take two bags of merchandise to her sister and to return to New York with the two bags.

He said the items he took to Peru were electronic items toys and shoes. For the return flight the sister went with him to the airport where she showed him the contents of the suitcases, which he checked and boarded the flight to Miami. Following the seizure, Jeri volunteered to make controlled calls to the friend in an attempt to elicit inculpatory comments about the drugs in the suitcase, but the friend repeatedly claimed the bags were clean. The agents attempted to arrange a controlled delivery of the drugs but the person who came to pick up the packages refused to take them.

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In U.S. v Little received multiple emails on his smart phone containing child pornography on December 21, 2013, while he was in Texas. At the time he was in Texas he opened the email and the pornographic attachments. Then Little moved from Texas to Tampa Florida to work on a shrimp boat. Before departing on the boat he emailed back and forth to a man named Dominic Hall asking for more pictures. The day after he returned from the boat trip he responded to Hall’s email by attaching a child pornographic photo. He used that same email account to send a one email containing child pornography.

Little was charged with transporting child pornography on January 26, 2013 and with possessing one or more depictions of child pornography from December 21, 2012 through January 26, 2013. Prior trial he filed a motion to dismiss both counts for improper venue which the trial court denied and following trial he moved for a judgment of acquittals as to the possession count that was also denied.

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In U.S. v. Louise, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was tipped off that the Ana Celia, a coastal freighter used to export goods from the United States to Haiti, was returning from Haiti to Miami carrying narcotic drugs. While the boat was docked in the Miami port, CBP agents set up surveillance of the boat. At one point the agents watched as a forklift picked up boxes from the boat and that were driven off the boat. The owner of the boat, Ernso Borgella, directed the forklift driver to place on the dock. Later a Nissan car which pulled up and Borgella told the driver to pull the car to park near the boxes. Two unidentified men loaded the boxes into the back seat of a white Nissan and Louis began to drive slowly out of the shipyard while Bogella walked alongside. After driving past the front gate of the shipyard the Nissan was stopped by law enforcement vehicles with lights and sirens. Louis exited the car and began to run. The agents found that the boxes in the back seat contained 111 bricks of cocaine.

Louis was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and with possession of cocaine. After a two-day federal criminal trial the jury found Louis guilty on both counts and the district court denied his motion for an acquittal. In this appeal Louis challenged his conviction arguing that the court should have found the evidence was insufficient to find he conspired to distribute drugs.

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In U.S. v. Shalhoub the court addressed the issue of whether the denial of a motion for special appearance of counsel to seek the dismissal of an indictment on the ground that the defendant is a fugitive from justice is an immediately appealable collateral order. If not then the issue becomes whether the court should issue a writ of mandamus to compel a ruling on the motion to dismiss the indictment without requiring the defendant to appear.

This is how the facts unfold. Shalhoub, a citizen and resident of Saudi Arabia married a woman in Miami in 1985 and divorced four years later. A Florida judge gave Shalhoub and his ex-wife full shared parental responsibility over their only child. Shalhoub was indicted in 1997 for one count of parental kidnapping in violation of the International Parental Kidnapping Crime act, which made it a crime to remove a child from the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights.   He was never arrested and status was fugitive.

In 2015, Shalhoub filed a motion in Miami federal criminal court to allow his counsel to appear specially and seed a dismissal of the indictment arguing that the incitement lack factual specificity, challenge the Venue of the federal kidnapping law as contravening the laws of Saudia Arabia, along with other challenges.

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A three-judge panel was reversed in U.S. v Roy by the En Banc court and the defendant’s conviction in federal court in Miami was reinstated for reasons explained below.   Here is what happened at the trial.

Roy was charged in a five-count indictment with sext crimes related to minor girls. Count one charged him with attempting to enticed a child base on his efforts to arrange a sexual encounter with someone he believed to be a 13-year-old girls in response to an interne ad posted by law enforcement. The other counts involved child pornography and charged him with knowingly possessing visual depictions of child pornography in violation of the federal statute. Each of those counts involved images that were stored in different electronic devices he kept. The charge required that the government prove that under each of the counts he knowingly possessed one or more images of child pornography on the electronic devices.

The issue here, which was the reason for the panel’s decision to overturn the conviction, involved Roy’s federal trial lawyer’s absence during a small a portion of the testimony of the trial.

The En Banc Court concluded that it was a Sixth Amendment constitutional violation for the trial judge to start the trial without the attorney present, but that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because of the overwhelming evidence offered while counsel was present that went to and proved the charges in counts 2 through 5, which were the only counts relevant to the testimony given during counsel’s absence. The error in the trial took place when his counsel returned a few minutes late from a lunch break on the third day of the six-day trial.

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In U.S. v Doran, Dr. James Doran was convicted under 18 U.S.C. 666 of embezzlement form the Florida State University (FSU) as an organization receiving federal funds. He argued on appeals that he is entitled to a judgment of acquittal because any embezzlement was not from FSU and that the government did not prove that the victimized organization under the statutes was a recipient of federal benefits. Under the federal statute it is a federal crime for and agent of an organization to embezzle or convert to the use of any person other than he rightful owner any property valued at $5,000 or more that is owned or in the custody of that organization, government, or agency. The provision also requires that the organization, government or agency receive in any one year period benefits in excess of $10,000 under a federal program involving a grant contract subsidy, or other form of federal assistance.

The facts as they unfolded at trial showed that Doran was a professor in the College of Business of FSU and was a director and officer of the Student Investment Fund (SIF) a non-profit corporation established by FSU for charitable and educational purposes. He had a signatory authority over the SIF bank account. During his tenure he transferred SIF money from the SIF accounts to his own personal account. This embezzlement was discovered after an investigation.   He was charged in an indictment that alleged he embezzled funds or property from FSU which it described was the recipient of federal benefits.

On appeal he challenged his conviction on the grounds that the SIF was the victimized organization under section 666 but that it received no federal benefits. He maintained that SIF and FSU are separate entities. The government’s response was that the embezzlement by Doran came within the ambit of section 666 because the SIF was closely affiliated with FSU which did receive millions of federal dollars and that Doran was a FSU professor and an agent of FSU when he committed the crime.

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The Horners were convicted of two counts of assisting in the preparation of a fraudulent corporate tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 6206 and filing a false individual tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 7206. This couple owned and operated Topcat Towing and Recovery, Inc. an S-corporation, in Lithonia, Georgia. Because Topcat required customer to pay in cases for most of its services, the Horners deposited approximately $3 million in cases into several business accounts in various banks as well as in personal accounts. They did not tell their tax preparer H&R Block about any of the cash deposits into their personal accounts. The IRS investigators concluded that theses person cash deposits were actually diverted Topcat receipts which means the defendants underreported Topcat’s income as well as their own income. On this evidence, the defendants were indicted.

One issue raised on appeal was the resulted from the testimony from IRS Agent Owns who examined their tax returns and testified regarding what she calculated as their correct tax liability. In her estimation, they owed an additional $474,147 over a four-year period.   Her calculation did not account for any business expenses the Horners may have paid from their personal accounts but that they did not claim as a reduction. In her cross examination she said that such unclaimed deductions would reduce the Horners unreported income tax liability, but that it would not have a “really big impact” and would still leave “a substantial understatement.” When calculating the amount of tax due during the sentencing phase, the trial court ultimately accepted a figure of unclaimed business expense deductions which reduced the unreported income in the relevant periods by approximately one-third.

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In United States v. Bergman the defendants were convicted following a jury trial of conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud, paying bribes and kickbacks in connection with a federal health care benefit program. Bergman was sentenced to 180 months and the other defendant was sentenced to 150 months.

Bergman was a licensed physician’s assistant employed by American Therapeutic Corporation that operated a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). A PHP serves as a bridge between inpatient and outpatient care for patients with a psychiatric condition serious enough to possibly require hospitalization. A community mental health center such as ATC administers a PHP, which offer intensive outpatient psychiatric care including individual or group psychotherapy, counseling and other mental health services. Staff at a PHP includes psychiatrists as well as nurses, physician’s assistants, occupational therapists, physical therapists and social workers.

After ATC was founded it developed into an extensive Medicare scammed billed Medicare for approximately $200 million in claims. While ATC did have some patients who needed psychiatric help and qualified for service, most did not and ATC did not provide the individualized treatment required by Medicare. Doctors that came in generally did nothing.

In this case the defendants created fake medical records and recruited patients in exchange for kickbacks. ATC paid its patient recruiters hundreds of thousands of dollars each month in cash in order to avoid any red flags or paper trail. They even kept a log of kickbacks paid.

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In this appeal the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals reversed a federal court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to vacate his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2255.  In Phillips v U.S., the defendant had been charged with numerous drug related offenses and with being a felon in possession of ammunition. A jury convicted him on one count of conspiracy to distribute less than five grams of crack cocaine, one count of crack cocaine distribution, one count of cocaine possession, and two counts of possession of ammunition after a prior felony conviction.

Following the filing of the defendant’s 2255 and while it was pending, the government discovered that Agent Michael Ghent an officer with the West Palm Beach Police Department had lied at trial, during the investigation and that he had been under investigation by his own police department for alleged criminal activities. Other investigations showed he had engaged in a sexual relationship with his CI, used illegal substances and provided false information in various government forms and submitted a false affidavit in a state criminal prosecution.

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