ILNews

Former recorder's extortion convictions upheld

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a former Lake County Recorder's convictions of extortion, but remanded so that his sentence could be revised because the District Court placed too much weight on following the sentencing guidelines.

In United States of America v. Morris Carter, No. 06-2412, Morris Carter challenged his three convictions and sentence of 51 months of incarceration on extortion charges.

Carter was found guilty of violating the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. Section 1951(a) while he was still county recorder. Carter helped Peter Livas, an FBI informant and owner of real estate rehab and development companies, obtain a list of sheriff's sales before anyone else and charged him $1,000.

Livas paid Carter $500 to get a Lake County contractor's license without having to pass the written test when the normal amount is $150 after passing the test. Livas also paid Carter $400 to have him purge a lien document on Livas' home.

At trial, Carter testified the money he received was a consulting retainer fee and that all other witnesses who testified against him were lying. Carter filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing there was insufficient evidence to find his alleged conduct had affected interstate commerce, which was denied.

Sentencing guidelines ranged from 51 to 63 months and Carter's counsel argued he should be given a below guidelines sentence of 41 months because he had a long history of public service.

The U.S. District Court researched whether the court could depart from the sentencing guidelines because Carter worked in public office and found no basis for the departure. The court said without authority it was unwilling to depart from adherence to the guidelines.

The 7th Circuit found the depletion of assets theory in this case is dependent on whether the government provided sufficient evidence to show Livas' three Indiana-based corporations purchased items through interstate commerce.

Carter also appealed the government's line of questioning during his cross-examination, when he was asked whether each of the witnesses called by the government was lying.

The 7th Circuit found that the jury would have convicted Carter even without his testimony regarding other witnesses' credibility because of the U.S. District Court's curative instructions to the jury to decide whether the testimony of the witnesses is truthful in any part and what weight is given to each testimony, and the amount of video evidence against him.

Carter appealed his sentence, claiming the U.S. District Court erred by treating the guidelines as mandatory, especially in light of mitigating facts in his favor, the weak evidence supporting the enhancement for serving as a leader of the extortion, and his history in public service.

The U.S. District Court placed too much weight on the guidelines when considering Carter's sentence, wrote Judge Joel Flaum. The guidelines are one factor among those listed in 18 U.S.C. Section 3553(a), and regardless of whether other courts have previously recognized public service as a grounds for departure, sentencing courts are charged with considering the history and characteristics of the defendant, which includes public service.

Other factors of Section 3553(a) must also be balanced; the 7th Circuit remanded for resentencing so the U.S. District Court can make this determination with the guidelines being given appropriate post-Booker weight, he wrote.
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