ILNews

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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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