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7th Circuit upholds $3M restitution order for copper theft

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a defendant’s argument that the court should go against its precedent that restitution is not a criminal penalty and that a recent U.S. Supreme Court holding means the jury should determine the amount of restitution he should pay for his role in copper theft.

Gregory Wolfe worked as a supervisor at Katoen Natie in Gary. The company packages and stores commodities including copper. Henry Bath LLC began storing its copper at the warehouse in early 2009. Wolfe and his stepfather, Gregory Harris, who was operations manager, began stealing sheets of copper and repackaging them to sell. This work was done before and after regular business hours.

An independent audit discovered the missing copper – approximately $2.9 million worth, totaling 390 metric tons. Harris and Wolfe were fired and charged with bank theft and interstate transportation of stolen goods. Wolfe argued at trial he had no knowledge of the theft scheme and was just following Harris’ orders. The government rebutted this defense with testimony by Wolfe’s sometimes girlfriend Ashby Gurgon.

Wolfe was convicted and sentenced to 88 months imprisonment on each count, to be served consecutively, followed by three-year terms of supervised release. The court also ordered him to pay more than $3 million in restitution.

In United States of America v. Gregory Wolfe, 11-3281, Wolfe argued that he was deprived of a fair trial because of statements the prosecutor made during closing argument. He also challenged his sentence and the restitution order.

Reviewing under plain error, the 7th Circuit found the prosecutor made improper remarks by credibility vouching for Gurgon, but Wolfe was not prejudiced or denied a fair trial.  The prosecutor did misstate trial testimony by saying “all the other witnesses” identified Wolfe on video, but Wolfe was unable to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by that remark.

The judges affirmed the 18-level increase to Wolfe’s sentence because the government was able to show the victim’s loss was at least $2.5 million. He argued that the value of the copper stolen in 2010 was less than that amount and he was unaware of any theft in 2009.

The 7th Circuit also affirmed the restitution order, refusing to find that Southern Union Co. v. United States, U.S. 132 S. Ct. 2344 (2012) requires the Circuit Court to overturn its longstanding jurisprudence that restitution is not a criminal penalty, and second, mandates that all restitution amounts be supported by the jury’s verdict, Judge William Bauer wrote. Southern Union and Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), only come into consideration if the court concludes restitution is a criminal penalty. Bauer noted that the 7th Circuit is in the minority among circuits by not finding restitution is a criminal penalty.

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