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SCOTUS defines money-laundering 'proceeds'

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Supreme Court of the United States has defined money laundering and tossed out the convictions of an East Chicago man in a split decision today.

The high court ruled on U.S. v. Efrain Santos, et al., No. 06-1005, which involved a money-laundering ring in East Chicago. This was one of two money-laundering cases decided by the court today; the other came in Cuellar v. U.S., No. 06-1456, which held that mere concealment of money during a transport is not enough to support a conviction for money laundering.

In Santos, a majority of justices held that "proceeds" according to the federal money-laundering statute applies only to transactions involving criminal profits, not the total amount of money.

Justices applied a narrow interpretation that authoring Justice Antonin Scalia said will not unduly burden the federal government and law enforcement agencies, who must show only that a single instance of unlawful activity was profitable.

The court applied the rule of lenity that favors defendants, not prosecutors, as it pondered the statute and reflected on the word "proceeds."

"Under either of the word's ordinary definitions, all provisions of the federal money-laundering statute are coherent; no provisions are redundant and the statute is not rendered utterly absurd," the opinion states. "From the face of the statute, there is no more reason to think that 'proceeds' means 'receipts' than there is to think that 'proceeds' means 'profits.' Under a long line of our decisions, the tie must go to the defendants. Because the 'profits' definition of 'proceeds' is always more defendant-friendly than the (other) definition, the rule of lenity dictates that it should be adopted."

But in a dissenting opinion - with which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Steven Breyer concurred - Justice Samuel Alito wrote, "Concluding that 'proceeds' means 'profits,' the plurality opinion's interpretation would frustrate Congress' intent and maim a statute that was enacted as an important defense against criminal enterprises."

Specifically, the Santos case involves the federal prosecution of a tavern lottery raid where Santos - known as "Puerto Rican Frankie" - was arrested for running the illegal operation throughout the region from the 1970s to 1994. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1998, but was released after the 7th Circuit issued rulings that changed the interpretation of money laundering. Following those decisions, U.S. District Judge James Moody in Hammond ruled that Santos' actions were no longer considered money laundering because of an interpretation of "net proceeds" and "gross proceeds" in federal laws.

Indianapolis lawyer Todd Vare with Barnes & Thornburg argued before the high court Oct. 3, 2007, making Santos the oldest case on its docket this term. This was the Hoosier attorney's first appearance before the SCOTUS and now represents a victory in a case that he took pro bono.

"My client is very pleased that he's properly being kept a free men," said Vare, indicating he spoke with his client within minutes of hearing about the ruling this morning. "Legally, I'm very pleased because it reflects the arguments we made about this ambiguous statute and, what's most interesting, is the division of justices on either side shows how difficult it was interpreting this statute and applying interpretations to the facts here."
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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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