Eleventh Circuit Vacates Financial Conviction Because Indictment Was Too Vague – U.S. v. Lang

October 9, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

Most Americans might not realize this, but banks are required to report transactions that exceed $10,000 per person per day. And it’s a financial crime to intentionally structure deposits to a bank to avoid meeting the reporting threshold; say, by making two deposits of $5,000 each. In United States v. Jerry Dwayne Lang, Lang was accused of 85 counts of structuring transactions to avoid this threshold, all of which stemmed from separate deposits of sub-$10,000 checks. Lang appealed his conviction on 70 of those counts, and the Eleventh Circuit ultimately agreed that the indictment incorrectly charged a crime for depositing each of the smaller checks. Depositing checks is not a crime; breaking a larger amount into smaller amounts is the crime, the Eleventh said. Because Lang’s indictment doesn’t sufficiently allege a crime, the court said, his conviction must be vacated and the case dismissed.

Lang’s indictment, appended to the opinion, shows that he cashed 85 checks at two different banks over about eight months. Each was below the $10,000 reporting threshold, but they totaled $636,529.61. (It’s not clear whether the checks stemmed from any other illegal activity; the opinion didn’t address that.) According to the Eleventh, the prosecution believes Lang’s 85 deposits represented 21 payments from the same source, which he had broken down into smaller amounts. However, the indictment accused Lang of “structuring” all 85 of the smaller transactions. Included in the indictment is an allegation that this was part of a pattern of illegal activity involving more than $100,000 in a year, an attempt to merit a sentence enhancement. The jury ultimately convicted him of 70 of the counts.

Lang appealed and the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that it is not possible to “structure” deposits of less than $10,000. As a result, the court said, the indictment was insufficient—so defective that it didn’t charge all elements of the offense for which he was convicted. The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that “structuring” means breaking up a single transaction above $10,000 into multiple smaller transactions in order to evade the reporting requirement. Two sister circuits have confronted the question of how to count the structuring crimes, the Eleventh noted, and both have ruled that the smaller deposits themselves are not themselves the crimes; the crimes are each of the larger payments that were broken up. The Eleventh agreed, saying it is impossible to structure a deposit of less than $10,000; it would also be unnecessary, as there would be no reporting requirement to evade. Because each count of an indictment must stand on its own, the court added, the indictment simply fails to plead any crime. It vacated the conviction and directed the court to dismiss the case.

Every defendant has a right to a sufficient indictment that sufficiently presents the essential elements of the offense, notifies him or her of the criminal charges to be defended, and does not leave him or her vulnerable to double jeopardy after a judgment is rendered. The Eleventh Circuit found that this indictment doesn’t meet standards because it simply fails to allege that Lang committed a crime. It doesn’t help prosecutors that they explained the situation in detail to the jury that convicted Lang; it’s vital that the indictment itself adequately charge him with a crime. As a result (and because there were no other charges against him), it looks as if he will be freed. Financial crimes are sometimes called white-collar crimes, but that doesn’t mean they carry light sentences. If you’re charged with this kind of crime, it’s still vital to have an experienced defense attorney on your side.

Based in Miami, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and all of Florida. If you’ve been accused of a crime, don’t hesitate to call us for a free, confidential consultation about your options. You can reach us online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) toll-free.

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