Second Circuit Criminal Law Blog

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The Second Circuit Criminal Law Blog is your place to follow the criminal law decisions rendered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  With a rich 225-year history of legendary judges like Learned Hand and Henry Friendly, the Second Circuit has long been known for writing important and thoughtful opinions on many subjects, including the criminal law.  We review every published criminal law opinion handed down by the Second Circuit in order to provide you with a summary of the holding, an assessment of the key legal issues, and practice pointers based on the Court’s ruling.  Our focus is on white-collar criminal cases and matters relating to internal investigations.  Our blog is written by a team of experienced attorneys, including many former law clerks for the Second Circuit and other federal courts.  The blog’s editor in chief is a former Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York who has appeared in more than 100 Second Circuit criminal appeals.

Second Circuit Limits Reach of FCPA to Persons Present in the United States

In an important decision issued on August 24, the Second Circuit limited the reach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) by holding that theories of conspiracy or complicity cannot be used to charge non-U.S. citizens who do not work for an American business and whose furtherance of corrupt schemes takes place outside the United States.  Judge Pooler wrote the majority decision in United States v. Hoskins, No. 16-1010, and Judge Wesley authored a concurring opinion.  This decision is notable because FCPA cases are rarely litigated because the stakes are ordinarily too high for corporations to challenge the  government’s theory of liability in court, and individual prosecutions are rare.  Hoskins is also particularly interesting because it appears to contradict the DOJ and SEC’s own interpretation of the FCPA, as set out in the FCPA resource guide

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Circuit Affirms Conviction under Biological Weapons Act

In United States v. Le, No. 16-819, the Second Circuit considered the constitutionality of the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 and whether it can reach “purely local” conduct.  The panel (Sack, Raggi, Gardephe, D.J.), affirmed the conviction of Cheng Le for attempting to acquire the toxin ricin to create a foolproof murder method, rejecting his constitutional challenges.

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Second Circuit’s Lambus Decision Analyzes the Admissibility of Wiretap and GPS Evidence

On July 25, 2018, in United States v. Lambus, No. 16-4296 (Kearse, Livingston, Jeffrey Meyer, D.J.), the Second Circuit issued a lengthy decision analyzing two questions related to the suppression of  GPS data from an ankle bracelet and evidence obtained from a wiretap.  The GPS question raises interesting issues about when a federal prosecution can make use of evidence obtained in connection with state parole supervision without a federal warrant and the relevance of state-federal coordination when making that assessment.  And the wiretap issue addresses whether an undisputed, but inadvertent, error in a wiretap application should result in the suppression of evidence.  On both issues, the district court (Weinstein, J.) granted the defendants’ motions to suppress, but the Circuit reversed.

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Second Circuit Affirms $10 million Fine in Tax Evasion Case

In a per curiam decision issued on July 27, 2018, the Second Circuit affirmed a $10 million fine imposed on Morris Zukerman as part of a sentence for tax evasion in United States v. Zukerman, No. 17-948 (Katzmann, Kearse, Pooler).  The Court summarized its reason for affirming the fine, which was well above the $250,000 Guidelines ceiling, by writing that “Zukerman, a very wealthy man who has repeatedly and brazenly committed sophisticated tax fraud—a rarely caught and more rarely punished offense that undercuts the functioning of state and federal governments—ought to pay a fine hefty enough to take any financial benefit out of his crimes and to give pause to others who might be tempted to commit similar crimes.”  While tax cases often involve downward variances to a non-incarceratory sentence, this case involved a district judge’s strongly held belief that the high fine was important to the purposes of sentencing and that it merited an upward variance.  The Circuit agreed.

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Second Circuit Reverses Immigration Proceeding Based on Constitutional Violation, Criticizes Immigration Enforcement Based on Ethnic Generalizations As "Teeter[ing] On The Verge of The Ugly Abyss of Racism"

In the context of an appeal from a decision of the Board of Immigration appeals, Zuniga-Perez v. Sessions, the Second Circuit (Pooley, Wesley, Chin, C.JJ) ruled that a search conducted by law enforcement personnel violated the Fourth Amendment.  The Court recognized that the petitioner “made a sufficient showing of an egregious constitutional violation” by law enforcement agents, and reversed the immigration judge’s decision to deny a suppression motion without a hearing.  While this is not a criminal law decision, it raises some important criminal law issues, so we have decided to cover it.

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When Is a Controlled Substance Not a Controlled Substance?

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin is a hormone produced during pregnancy that is prescribed as part of some fertility treatments and, less legitimately, sold as a dieting aid.  In New York, it is considered a controlled substance, but it’s not listed on the federal controlled substance schedule.  In United States v. Townsend, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Carney, Lawrence Vilardo, D.J.) faced a defendant with a prior conviction for possession of HCG, and considered whether his base offense level should be increased based on a prior conviction for an “offense under federal or state law . . . that prohibits . . . distribution . . . of a controlled substance.”   USSG § 2K2.1(a).  Applying a presumption that the Guidelines refer to federal law unless they explicitly incorporate state law, the panel said no:  because HCG is not banned on the federal level, its possession is not an offense for possession of a “controlled substance” for sentencing purposes.

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United States v. Smith

The Second Circuit issued an amended opinion in United States v. Smith (Cabranes, Winter, Restani by designation).  Both the original decision, which we covered on the blog earlier this year and the amended decision held that the defendant was subject to an enhanced Guidelines range as a result of having committed the New York offense of robbery in the second degree.  This crime constituted a crime of violence within the meaning of the residual clause of Sentencing Guidelines Section 4B1.2(a)(2), which was in effect when Smith was sentenced on October 1, 2015.

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Second Circuit Rejects Coin Dealer’s Coram Nobis Petition

Robert du Purton was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in 2001 for participating in an “elaborate scheme of fraudulent representations” in his rare coin business.  According to trial evidence, du Purton lied to customers about the sources of coins, concocted phony auctions to drive up prices, and had his employees impersonate competitors or independent sources, among other things.  His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal.  Nearly fifteen years later, he brought a petition for writ of error coram nobis, claiming that the government presented false expert testimony at trial.  In a per curiam decision, the Second Circuit (Katzman, Leval, Andrew Carter, District Judge) affirmed the denial of the petition.

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Second Circuit Addresses Victims’ Rights, Restitution, and Asset Forfeiture in Insurance Context

In a case arising out of the CityTime scandal, the Second Circuit issued a thoughtful opinion addressing the operation of restitution and asset forfeiture on victims of white-collar crime.  The decision, Federal Insurance Company v. United States of America, Nos. 16-2967-op and 16-3402-cr, emphasizes that though restitution and forfeiture are both means for victims to be made whole, they are not subject to the same analysis.  Ultimately, the Court (Parker, Lynch, Carney) affirmed the decision denying restitution, but remanded for additional proceedings on forfeiture.  The decision is worth a careful read for those representing victims in white-collar criminal matters, and also serves as a road map for how district court judges might approach these issues in the future.

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Of Dead Sea Scrolls and Criminal Impersonation

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.

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Affirmance in Drug Conspiracy Trial Considers Sufficiency of the Indictment and Evidentiary Rulings

United States v. Gill, No. 15-4444-cr(L) (Livingston, Chin, Carney), a decision in a drug trafficking and murder conspiracy appeal, offers several interesting rulings on evidentiary and trial practice issues that arose out of a 4-week trial.  As we often see, these decisions may originate in the world of violence crime and narcotics, but the legal rules established in these cases will also apply in the world of business crimes.

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Second Circuit Vacates Sentence Based on Failure to Apply the Categorical Approach

In United States v. Genao, No. 16-924 (Katzmann, Lynch, Chin), the Second Circuit examined the application of the categorical approach to a prior burglary conviction that indisputably involved threats of physical harm but whose minimal elements arguably did not meet the Guidelines’ definition of a “crime of violence.”  The Second Circuit reaffirmed that the categorical approach requires evaluation of the elements of conviction, not the facts of conviction, making it reversible error for the district judge to have “short circuited” the analysis by starting with the facts.  But the Second Circuit emphasized that in an advisory-Guidelines world, the district court is free to take those facts of conviction into account in exercising its discretion to set the final sentence. So long as the sentencing correctly applies and calculates the appropriate Guidelines sentence, the court is then liberated—indeed required—to pick the sentence that it believe best fits the crime.

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Circuit Reverses Over-Expansive Forfeiture Order

On July 7, 2017, the Second Circuit (Jacobs, Leval, Raggi) issued a short summary order in United States v. Stegemann.  Most of the order is dedicated to affirming the defendant’s conviction at trial on several drug and firearm-related offenses, but at the end the Court reverses the order of forfeiture imposed as part of the defendant’s sentence, in part with the government’s consent.

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Convictions Affirmed in Drug Robbery Conspiracy

In United States v. Martinez, Nos. 14-2759, 15-511, 15-836, 15-1001, 15-3699 (Kearse, Jacobs, Pooler), issued on July 7, the Second Circuit affirmed the convictions of several co-conspirators in a decade-long scheme where at least two dozen individuals allegedly committed over 200 drug robberies by impersonating police officers who “arrested” drug traffickers and “seized” cash and drugs. 

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Second Circuit Vacates Sentence that Erroneously Denied Acceptance of Responsibility Credit

In United States v. Delacruz, No. 15-4174, the Second Circuit (Kearse, Lohier, Droney) vacated a defendant’s sentence, holding that the district court’s findings supporting the defendant’s failure to accept responsibility were clearly erroneous.  In an opinion by Judge Kearse, the Second Circuit emphasized its precedent that a Sentencing Guidelines reduction for acceptance of responsibility is appropriate where the defendant truthfully admits the conduct comprising the offense of conviction.  It would violate the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to withhold an acceptance of responsibility adjustment because the defendant denied other conduct that was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Thus, a “good-faith objection to material [presentence report] statements . .  does not provide a proper foundation for denial of the acceptance-of-responsibility credit.”

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Exigent Circumstances Under the Fourth Amendment May Extend to the Need to Interview an Arrestee in Place

In a split decision in United States v. Delva, No. 15-cr-683 (Kearse, Winter, Jacobs), the Second Circuit held that the Fourth Amendment allowed law enforcement officers to seize cell phones and a number of letters that were in plain view in the room of a suspect’s home where he was interviewed immediately after an arrest.  The majority opinion, written by Judge Kearse, relied on the “exigent circumstances” doctrine to hold that it was reasonable under the circumstances to hold an interview in the suspect’s home, which allowed the officers to seize incriminating evidence that was in plain view without obtaining a search warrant.  Although the majority opinion is careful to recognize that the exigent circumstances exception requires a case-by-case analysis, the decision extends the infrequently applied exigent circumstances doctrine to a new set of facts.  The decision drew a dissent from Judge Jacobs, who objected to the majority’s reliance on the exigent circumstances doctrine when the government had not raised it in the trial or appellate court, thus denying the defendant any chance to respond to this somewhat novel analysis offered by the Court.

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The Circuit Raises A Glass To A Broad Construction Of Law Enforcement’s Authority Under The Fourth Amendment

Yesterday the Second Circuit issued a decision in United States v. Diaz, No. 15-3776 (Walker, Sack, Chin).  In an opinion by Judge Sack, the Court addressed two questions under the Fourth Amendment:  when does a police officer have probable cause to make an arrest under an ambiguous law, and whether an officer can conduct a search incident to arrest if she only intends to issue a citation.

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In A Summary Order, Second Circuit Vacates 30-year Child Pornography Sentence on Substantive Reasonableness Grounds

In United States v. Sawyer, No. 15-2276, the Second Circuit (Jacobs, Pooler, Crawford) vacated and remanded for resentencing a case involving a conviction for possession of child pornography.  The decision rested on a finding that the 30-year sentence was substantively unreasonable, yet was made by unpublished summary order.  This is the third time in the past several months that a child pornography sentence has been vacated and remanded (see our posts on United States v. Bennett and United States v. Brown), but while the prior two decisions rested on procedural grounds as a means of sending the case back to the district court for a second look, Sawyer relies solely on substantive unreasonableness.  It is very rare for the Second Circuit to reverse a within-the-range sentence for substantive unreasonableness.

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Law Enforcement Permitted To Obtain GPS Location Data Without A Warrant In A Sex Trafficking Investigation

In United States v. Gilliam, 15-387, the Second Circuit (Newman, Winter, Cabranes) held that, under the exigent circumstances present in that case, law enforcement could use cell phone GPS data to locate a suspect without obtaining a warrant consistent with both the Stored Communications Act and the Fourth Amendment.  This appeal presents one of many unanswered questions arising out of cellphone technology.  While cellphones are far from new, there are still some questions about how cellphone data can be used in investigations and at trial.

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Food For Thought: Court of Appeals Questions Relevance Of Guidelines To Case Of Fraud Involving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence.  The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level—a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems”—required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted.

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Corrupt Public Officials Can Be Ordered to Pay Forfeiture Judgments Out of Pensions

On August 17, 2016, the Second Circuit issued a decision in United States v. Stevenson, No. 14-1862-cr, holding that a state legislator convicted of bribery could be required to forfeit a portion of his pension fund as part of a sentence.  Former New York State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was convicted in 2014 of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and to violate the Travel Act, accepting bribes, and extortion under color of official right.  The charges arose out of an investigation finding that Stevenson took bribes of $22,000 from businessmen in the Bronx who ran an adult day care center in exchange for proposing legislation that would have imposed a moratorium on new facilities that would have provided competition.

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Second Circuit Clarifies Venue Requirements for Securities Fraud

On August 15, 2016, the Second Circuit issued a rare opinion on the subject of the sufficiency of evidence to establish venue in United States v. Lange, No. 14-2442-cr (Jacobs, Chin, Droney).  In this securities fraud and conspiracy case, the Court found there was sufficient evidence that the defendants committed a crime in the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) when they were aware of “cold call” lists including EDNY residents and where emails soliciting investment were sent to a Postal Inspector in Brooklyn.  This connection was sufficient even though the participants in the scheme operated out of Washington State and had little contact with EDNY. 

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Sentence Vacated In Summary Order for Plain Error Based on Jury’s Failure to Find a Fact Necessary for Imposition of Mandatory Minimum

In a summary order issued on June 22, 2016 in United States v. Golding, No. 15-891-cr (Straub, Wesley, Droney), the Second Circuit remanded a case for resentencing based on the jury’s failure to find a fact necessary to the court’s imposition of a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Because defense counsel did not object on these grounds at the trial court, the Second Circuit’s review was limited to plain error.  The Court’s use of a summary order suggests it viewed this case as routine, but the decision gives a rare win to a criminal defendant under the stringent plain error standard.

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Second Circuit Reaffirms The Right of A Corporation To Impose Consequences On Employees Who Do Not Cooperate With Internal Investigations

In Gilman v. Marsh & McLennan Cos., No. 15-0603-cv (Kearse, Winter, Jacobs), the Second Circuit held that a corporation can fire an employee for cause if the employee refuses to participate in an internal investigation of the company’s possible criminal wrongdoing.  Masquerading as an employment dispute, the decision could have important consequences for how a corporation and its employees handle internal investigations when there is the potential for criminal prosecution.

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