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. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues