Category: Statutory Interpretation
In United States v. Percoco, the Second Circuit (Raggi, Chin, Sullivan) the Second Circuit affirmed the convictions of several defendants involved in the so-called “Buffalo Billion” scandal. The charged crimes included three distinct schemes. One involved bid rigging by a lobbyist, his clients, and an individual with sway over awarding contracts under the project. The other two involved a former aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joseph Percoco, who was charged with helping two companies achieve their business goals by using his influence over state officials. While the allegations are redolent of public corruption in New York State government, these schemes do not comfortably sit within the traditional purview of federal wire, mail, and honest services fraud. In two separate, lengthy opinions, the Circuit upheld the convictions in their entirety, stretching the federal fraud statutes to their limits in order to affirm. Although there is nothing more destructive to a democracy than the public’s loss of faith in its elected officials’ willingness to put the public good over private interests, we express some concerns about the approach taken by the Court in these decisions.
Second Circuit Affirms Judgment Against S.E.C. Broker, Holds that Statute of Limitations for S.E.C. Actions is Not Jurisdictional
In Securities and Exchange Commission v. Fowler, the Second Circuit (Lohier, Nardini, and Cronan, sitting by designation) affirmed the imposition of civil penalties and disgorgement against a financial broker. In so doing, the Second Circuit addressed whether the statute of limitations for the commencement of S.E.C. proceedings is jurisdictional, an issue of first impression in the Circuit, and concluded that it is not. The Court also rejected Fowler’s other arguments, including that the district court permitted the S.E.C. to improperly recharacterize its theory of Fowler’s liability, that the jury improperly found unauthorized trading in customer accounts, and that the district court erroneously imposed financial penalties as to each victim of Fowler’s conduct.
In United States v. Wedd, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Park, Nardini), affirmed the defendant’s 2018 convictions for aggravated identity theft (among other offenses), which arose from a scheme to auto-subscribe customers to pricey premium text messaging services. In the process, the Second Circuit—enhancing a circuit split—rejected Wedd’s argument that the scheme involved no “use” of a means of identification of another person, a requisite for conviction under the aggravated identity theft statute. The panel also rejected Wedd’s contentions that the district court erred in giving a conscious avoidance instruction and in failing to recuse itself from his (third) trial.
In United States v. Clarke, the Second Circuit ventured once more into the thicket of internet crime, tangling with statutory interpretation and discovery issues complicated by their technological setting. The panel (Walker, Leval, Carney) gave an expansive read to a child pornography statute, ruling that the defendant “transported” child pornography through an online peer-to-peer network, even though the government moved the files from the defendant’s computer, and the defendant was not aware of the file transfer. In addition, the panel refused the defendant’s discovery request for inspection of law enforcement software based on the facts presented here, and declined to announce a standard for future cases involving similar law enforcement programs. The panel also rejected a bevy of challenges relating to the sufficiency of the evidence and the reasonableness of the sentence, to ultimately affirm the judgment of the district court.
In United States v. Gadsden, the Second Circuit (Walker, Katzmann and Wesley, per curiam) affirmed the decision of the Southern District of New York denying Damone Gadsden’s motion for resentencing under the First Step Act. The opinion is consistent with recent decisions in other circuits, and reinforces the principle that the exercise of sentencing discretion is not synonymous with specific procedural requirements.
In United States v. Razzouk, the Second Circuit (Walker, Carney, Koeltl by designation) considered the meaning of an “offense against property” as used by the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (“MVRA”). The panel rejected a categorical approach, and instead permitted consideration of the facts and circumstances of the defendant’s crimes. Restitution is one of the areas in sentencing law that has seen major developments over the past few years. This decision appears to continue the Second Circuit’s long tradition of being a generally favorable forum for victims of crime.
In United States v. Davis, the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Wesley, Bianco) affirmed the district court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for a reduced sentence under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018. The government had appealed the order, arguing that eligibility for Section 404 relief turns on a defendant’s actual conduct as opposed to the statutory offense for which a defendant was sentenced. The Court disagreed and issued a decision that brings the Second Circuit in line with at least six other circuit courts that have issued precedential opinions in the last year with similar holdings. It is reassuring to see the Circuit rule in a way that reinforces the protections offered by the First Step Act, over the government’s objections in this case.
In United States v. Zapatero, the Second Circuit (Hall, Sullivan, Bianco) issued a published opinion concerning a narrow sentencing issue, ruling that a district court may not rely on a Sentencing Guidelines § 5G1.3(b) adjustment made at a defendant’s original sentencing to subsequently reduce the defendant’s sentence, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), to one that falls below the defendant’s amended Guidelines range. The decision is based on strict interpretation of the Guidelines, which only permit reductions under Section 3582(c)(2) in fairly narrow circumstances.
In Wake of Supreme Court’s Vagueness Rulings, Second Circuit Vacates Section 924(c) Residual Clause Conviction
In United States v. Barrett, No. 14-2541 (2d Cir. Aug. 30, 2019) (Winter, Raggi, Droney), the Second Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for using a firearm in connection with a “crime of violence” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down the residual clause of that statute in United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019). To understand the Second Circuit’s decision, a brief discussion of Section 924(c) and Davis is warranted. Section 924(c) raises some of the same questions presented by litigation under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), which has been the subject of repeated litigation in the Supreme Court and the Circuit Courts of Appeal in recent years.
On January 31, 2019, the Second Circuit issued a per curiam decision in United States v. Thrower (Wesley, Chin, and Cote, by designation) reversing a 2017 judgment from the Eastern District of New York that reduced the defendant’s sentence from 180 months to 120 months, which resulted in the defendant’s immediate release. The district court issued that order after concluding that Thrower’s prior New York convictions for robbery in the third degree and attempted robbery in the third degree do not qualify as predicate “violent felonies” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The Second Circuit concluded that those determinations were incorrect, vacated the district court’s judgment, and remanded with instructions that the district court reinstate Thrower’s original mandatory 180-month sentence.
In Shabazz v. United States, the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Leval, Berman by designation) again addressed the meaning of “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), this time under its “force clause.” As readers of this blog will recall, ACCA has been the subject of many appeals during the past year. See Jacqueline L. Bonneau & Harry Sandick, The Second Circuit Counts to Three: How One Defendant Became a Career Criminal Over the Course of an Hour (Apr. 2, 2018); Joshua Kipnees & Harry Sandick, In Split Decision, Court Again Applies Castleman To Interpret the “Force Clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (July 18, 2018); D. Brandon Trice & Harry Sandick, Court Regrets Allowing Successive 2255 Petition in Massey v. United States (July 16, 2018). At issue in this case was whether Shabazz’s convictions for first and second-degree robbery under Connecticut law constitute violent felonies. The Circuit held that all convictions for robbery in Connecticut inherently involve the use or threatened use of violent force, and therefore reversed the District Court’s grant of Shabazz’s habeas petition. Interestingly, the Court based its holding not on an interpretation of the elements of robbery by the Connecticut Supreme Court, but on the inherent danger of violent force associated with the act of robbery. Given the breadth of this holding, any robbery offense that is similar to the common law definition now likely qualifies as an ACCA predicate offense in the Second Circuit, perhaps cutting off future appeals arising out of convictions for robbery in other jurisdictions.
Circuit Determines that Attempted Robbery Under New York Law Constitutes a “Crime of Violence” Pursuant to 2014 Federal Sentencing Guidelines
In United States v. Pereira-Gomez, a panel of the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Carney, Caproni, D.J.) issued an opinion analyzing whether attempted robbery under New York law qualifies as a “crime of violence” for enhancement purposes under Section 2L1.2 of the November 2014 United States Sentencing Guidelines. Engaging in a meticulous exercise in statutory interpretation, the panel concluded that while the offense is not specifically enumerated in the Guidelines’ definition of “crime of violence,” it does fall within the residual “force clause” of the relevant Guidelines application note, thereby resulting in a substantial prior offense enhancement to the applicable sentencing range. This case demonstrates the difficulties that courts and litigators experience in interpreting sentencing enhancement provisions that are based on the categorical nature of a prior conviction.
The Circuit Affirms Public Corruption Conviction, Rejecting A Slew Of Arguments And Narrowing The Reach Of Its Prior Decisions On Witness Tampering
In a lengthy opinion in United States v. Sampson on August 6, 2018, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Livingston, Carney) affirmed the conviction of former New York State Senator John Sampson for obstruction of justice and false statements. Sampson challenged his conviction at trial on a variety of different grounds. The strongest possible basis for reversal was based on two prior decisions of the Second Circuit that limited the reach of Section 1503(a), one of the statutes that prohibits obstruction of justice. In order for the Court to affirm, it needed to limit the apparent reach of these decisions, coming right up to the line that prohibits one panel of the Second Circuit from revisiting a prior panel decision without an en banc ruling by the Court. In the end, the Court rejected this claim and the many other claims presented by Sampson, leaving both his conviction and sentence in place.
Courts Reinstates Embezzlement Charges Dismissed as Untimely, Holding that Dismissal was Based on a Premature Assessment of the Government’s Evidence
In United States v. Sampson, decided August 6, 2018, the Court (Cabranes, Livingston, Carney, C.J.J.) reversed the district court’s dismissal of embezzlement charges levied against former New York State Senator John Sampson. In a companion decision issued the same day, which we summarize in a separate post, the Court affirmed Sampson’s conviction on obstruction and false statement charges that proceeded to trial.
In United States v. Rose, the Court (Katzmann, Walker, and Bolden, sitting by designation) rejected a jurisdictional challenge to a guilty plea to violating the Hobbs Act, potentially giving rise to a Circuit split. The defendant, Floyd Rose, was charged with robbing his victim by forcing them to withdraw money from their bank’s ATM and then hand it over to Rose. After pleading guilty to Hobbs Act robbery, Rose argued that his plea should be set aside because the robbery lacked any connection to interstate commerce.
In United States v. Mark Henry, the Second Circuit (Jacobs, Cabranes, and Wesley, Js.) affirmed that the Arms Export Control Act (“AECA”), 22 U.S.C. § 2751 et seq., does not constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the executive branch, in addition to addressing various issues of trial procedure. The defendant, Mark Henry, appealed his 2014 conviction following a jury trial of violating and attempting to violate the AECA by exporting “ablative materials”—military-grade technology used in rockets and missiles—and microwave amplifiers to customers in Taiwan and China. The AECA prohibits the exportation of ablative materials, microwave amplifiers, and other “defense articles” except pursuant to a license issued by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, a division of the U.S. Department of State. The government presented evidence at trial that the defendant was aware of the need for an export license, that he did not have such a license, and that instead of acquiring a license the defendant took steps to conceal his exportation of restricted materials through the use of intermediaries, fictitious companies, and falsified documents, among other things. The court allowed the defendant, who is from China and primarily speaks Mandarin, to testify at trial in English through the help of a standby interpreter, although the court otherwise required a translator to assist the defendant throughout the trial.
In 2014, a federal jury acquitted Gerald E. Bove of one count of Hobbs Act conspiracy and one count of Attempted Hobbs Act extortion. Following his acquittal, Bove applied for reimbursement of the attorney’s fees and expenses he incurred in defending the criminal charges, pursuant to a rarely-litigated statutory provision known as the Hyde Amendment of 1997, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. On April 26, 2008, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Livingston, Carney, Js.) affirmed the district court’s denial of Bove’s application, and in doing so confirmed that the standard for criminal defendants to recover fees and costs is high, and the discretion afforded district courts presented with Hyde Amendment applications is wide.
The Second Circuit Counts to Three: How One Defendant Became a Career Criminal Over the Course of an Hour
In United States v. Bordeaux, 17-486-cr (Cabranes, Raggi, Vilardo), the Second Circuit held that the defendant’s three prior Connecticut state convictions for first-degree robbery—all of which took place during a single night—satisfied the requirements for conviction under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). The opinion confirms that a conviction under Connecticut’s first-degree robbery statute constitutes a “violent felony” within the meaning of the ACCA and continues the majority approach to interpreting the “different occasions” requirement of the Act—which places the greatest emphasis on whether a defendant had time to contemplate his actions between the incidents giving rise to his prior convictions. Much is at stake for the defendant: a conviction under Section 924(e) carries with it a mandatory consecutive 15-year term of imprisonment.
The Klansman and His Death Ray: Second Circuit Affirms Conviction and Sentence in Bizarre Domestic Terrorism Plot
In United States v. Crawford, 16-4261-cr (Kearse, Cabranes, Wesley), the Second Circuit affirmed via summary order the terrorism-related conviction and sentence of a Klansman in upstate New York. This case represented the first conviction under the 2004 law barring the acquisition and use of so-called “dirty bombs” and provided a rare opportunity for the Circuit to interpret several terrorism statutes. It is most notable, however, for its bizarre fact pattern—involving Ku Klux Klan business cards, a modified x-ray machine, and a plot to kill President Barack Obama and an unknown number of Muslims. In August 2015, Glendon Scott Crawford—a Navy veteran and an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan—was convicted of several counts of domestic terrorism and was subsequently sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for his crimes.
Skelos Vacated: For The Second Time This Year, Conviction Of Leading New York State Legislator Is Undone Due To McDonnell
The Second Circuit (Winter, Raggi, Hellerstein by designation) today vacated by summary order the convictions of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam Skelos. Dean and Adam Skelos were convicted of Hobbs Act conspiracy and substantive offenses, honest services wire fraud conspiracy, and federal program bribery, after a jury trial in which the government presented evidence that the elder Skelos had taken official actions to benefit certain companies in exchange for payments to his son. Much like the conviction of his fellow senior state legislator, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the conviction was reversed in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2355 (2016), which narrowed the definition of an “official act.” As the Court rejected the defense contention that insufficient evidence supported the convictions, both Skelos and his son will be retried by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Like the Silver reversal, this ruling reflects the ways in which the McDonnell decision has complicated that office’s investigation and prosecution of public corruption in New York state government.
Golb v. Attorney General, No. 16-0452-pr (Jacobs, Leval, Raggi), arises out of unusual facts—forged emails by a proponent of one side of an academic dispute—and reaches an unusual result. On habeas review, the Second Circuit found that it only owed partial AEDPA deference, and overturned an number of convictions after finding a New York statute unconstitutionally overbroad. In this case, an advocate of one side of the unresolved academic debate about the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls went too far and engaged in illegal acts that brought about his own criminal conviction. On its face, the decision applies important aspects of New York and federal constitutional law. However, in a larger sense, the law most relevant to the decision may be Sayre’s Third Law of Politics, which provides that academic politics are the most vicious form of politics because the stakes are so low.
In United States v. Strong, No. 15-2992, the Court (Kearse, Lohier, and Droney) affirmed Strong’s conviction in a brief, per curiam opinion. Strong was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute cocaine base and heroin. The government filed a 21 U.S.C. § 851 prior felony information that doubled the applicable mandatory minimum from 60 months to 120 months. Strong did not object to the filing of the prior felony information. He pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge and admitted the fact of his prior state felony conviction.
If It Looks Like a Bomb, and Explodes Like a Bomb . . . : The Court Finds Model Pipe Bomb Is a Destructive Device
Is a pipe bomb that exploded a “destructive device”? Though it may seem like a trick question, in United States v. Sheehan, 15-2028-cr (Lynch, J., joined by Judges Winter and Wesley), issued September 23, 2016, the Court spends most of its 44-page decision grappling with whether a bomb built and planted by the defendant was an “explosive bomb” (or a “combination of parts” from an explosive bomb could readily be assembled) such that it qualifies as a destructive device under Section 924. The Government (and common sense) prevailed: the Court concluded that, indeed, this exploding bomb was an explosive bomb.
Disjunction, Disjunction, What’s Your Function? Despite Statutory “or,” Court Holds Same Conduct May Support Both Modification and Revocation of Supervised Release
At issue in the Court’s September 22, 2016 decision in United States v. Harris, No. 15-1774 (Raggi, J., joined by Judges Newman and Calabresi) is a clever defendant’s embrace of the disjunctive in Section 3583 in urging that the statute governing revocation of supervised release permits a violation of release conditions to serve as the basis to revoke “or” modify supervision – but not both.
Evidence That Defendant Targeted Marijuana Dealer for Marijuana or Proceeds Satisfies Hobbs Act Interstate Commerce Element
The Hobbs Act makes it a crime to “obstruct, delay, or affect commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery . . . or attempt or conspire so to do.” 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a). “[C]ommerce” is defined under the Act to include “all . . . commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction.” Id. § 1951(b)(3). With its opinion in United States v. Lee, 11-2539, 11-2543, 11-2834, 11-4068, the Court (Cabranes, Pooler, Lynch) has made clear that evidence that a defendant targeted a marijuana dealer for his marijuana or marijuana proceeds is sufficient to satisfy the Hobbs Act’s interstate commerce element (see Op. at 13).
Court Rules That District Court Had Power to Adjudicate Supervision Violations Charged After Expiration of Supervision Term
In United States v. Edwards, the Court (Sack, Raggi, Droney) affirmed a judgment of the District Court (Chatigny, J.) revoking the supervised release of Defendant-Appellant Owen Edwards and sentencing Edwards to 24 months’ imprisonment based on four supervision violations. Edwards had raised two issues on appeal: first, whether the District Court had jurisdiction to revoke his supervised release based on violations charged after the scheduled expiration of his term of supervision; and second, whether the evidence was sufficient to support the particular charge that Edwards had committed a crime while under supervision.
In United States v. Tagliaferri, 15-536 (May 4, 2016) (Leval, Pooler, Wesley), the Court issued a per curiam order affirming Defendant’s conviction for violations of the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, 15 U.S.C. § 80b-6 (the “1940 Act”), entered by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Abrams, J.). In the underlying appeal, the Defendant raised several challenges to his conviction by a jury for violations of the 1940 Act, as well as securities fraud, wire fraud, and violations of the Travel Act.
Hobbs Act Robbery a Categorical “Crime of Violence” and Predicate to Federal “Murder-by-Firearm” Statute
In United States v. Hill, 14-3872-cr (August 3, 2016) (Jacobs, Livingston, Droney), the Court affirmed Defendant’s conviction in the Eastern District of New York (Matsumoto, J.) pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1) for a firearm-related murder committed in the course of a “crime of violence.”
Can the Government employ a domestic search warrant to compel disclosure of communications stored on servers located outside of the United States? In its much anticipated decision in In the Matter of a Warrant to Search a Certain E-Mail Account Controlled and Maintained by Microsoft Corporation, 14-2985 (“Microsoft”), a Second Circuit panel (Lynch, J., Carney, J., Bolden, J., sitting by designation) answered that it cannot.
Defining the Terms: What Constitutes a “Federally Insured Financial Institution” Under 18 U.S.C. § 1344 or a “Bank” Under 18 U.S.C. § 1014?
In United States v. Bouchard, 14-4156, the Court (Parker, J., Lynch, J., and Lohier, J.) reversed the conviction of defendant Michael Bouchard after finding that the Government’s evidence only showed that Bouchard had made false statements in order to defraud BNC Mortgage (“BNC”), a mortgage lender that did not fall within the Title 18 definition of a “federally insured financial institution” or “bank” as would be required by statute for a conviction.
Court of Appeals Affirms Conviction of Former Connecticut Governor Based On Expansive Interpretation of Sarbanes-Oxley
In United States v. Rowland, No. 15-985, the Second Circuit (Winter, Chin, Carney) rejected challenges by former governor of Connecticut John Rowland to both his conviction and sentence on seven counts of violating campaign finance laws and falsifying records. In so doing, the panel issued an important decision regarding the interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which prohibits the falsification of documents for the purpose of misleading government investigators. The Rowland decision tacks in a different direction from the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Yates v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1074 (2015), in which the Court narrowed the reach of this statute by adopting an interpretation rooted in the statute’s purpose. Rowland, by contrast, seems to take a broader approach.
Sentence Reduction to be “Based On” Most Recent Sentencing Range Applied to Defendant, Not Original Range in Effect at Initial Sentencing.
In United States v. Derry, No. 15-1829 (June 2, 2016) (RSP, BDP, DAL), the Second Circuit confronted a sentencing issue which has garnered increased attention in light of multiple recent amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to reduce the length of prison sentences associated with certain drug offenses: When a defendant is sentenced under one version of the Guidelines and has his sentence reduced under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) when his “sentencing range . . . has been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission,” can he receive yet another reduction based on another subsequent amendment to the Guidelines which results in a lower range than was applied at the original sentencing but has no effect on the range that was applied at resentencing? The short answer: no.
Second Circuit Affirms Honest Services Fraud Conviction Amidst Doubt About The Future Viability Of Honest Services Fraud
Does the act of paying money to a party official to allow a candidate merely to run for public office constitute bribery? And does a party official owe a “fiduciary duty” to his party to open its ticket to candidates from opposing parties only sparingly, such that an exchange of money for a place on the party ticket supports a conviction under the honest services fraud statute (18 U.S.C. § 1346)?