The term “white collar crime” refers to a wide range of offenses involving financial and commercial activities. Many federal statutes dealing with financial regulations have both civil and criminal enforcement provisions. This means that the government can bring a civil lawsuit, which could result in penalties and damages, or a criminal prosecution, which could result in a fine and a prison sentence. Antitrust law deals with monopolistic and other anticompetitive practices by businesses. Most federal antitrust cases involve civil enforcement, but one statute allows criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice (DOJ). An online retail company recently pleaded guilty to criminal antitrust violations in a Texas white collar prosecution. United States v. Zaappaaz, Inc., No. 4:17-cr-00477, information (S.D. Tex., Aug. 7, 2017). Its president also pleaded guilty to a similar charge. United States v. Makanojiya, No. 4:17-cr-00478, information (S.D. Tex., Aug. 7, 2017).

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first major federal statute addressing anticompetitive business practices. It prohibits contracts and conspiracies “in restraint of trade or commerce” across state lines. 15 U.S.C. § 1. The purpose of this statute, according to the Supreme Court, “is to protect the public from the failure of the market” by prohibiting “conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.” Spectrum Sports, Inc. v. McQuillan, 506 U.S. 447, 458 (1993). Criminal penalties may include up to 10 years in prison. Congress has amended the statute over the years to increase the monetary penalties. Originally, the law provided for a fine of up to $5,000. Since 2004, the maximum penalty has been $100 million for a corporation, or $1 million for an individual or an organization other than a corporation. Additionally, private parties may be able to file civil lawsuits for antitrust violations that directly caused them harm.

The corporate defendant is a Texas corporation that sells “customized promotional products, including wristbands and lanyards,” through several websites. Zaappaaz, information at 1. The government alleged that the defendant conspired with other e-commerce businesses involved in the sale of similar products “to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing and maintaining prices.” Id. at 2. The defendant allegedly made these agreements at in-person meetings or in communications through text messaging and social media platforms. This occurred from approximately October 2014 until about June 2016. The information in Makanojiya makes almost identical allegations against that defendant, identifying him as the president and director of the corporate defendant.

Individuals and businesses that work in the financial sector may be subject to a wide range of statutes at the federal and state levels. These laws can impose both civil and criminal penalties for actions ranging from overt malfeasance to failure to keep up with record-keeping requirements. They have national reach, meaning they could apply to someone on Wall Street as well as individuals in Texas. Criminal prosecutions for alleged financial crimes often require the government to meet a difficult burden of proof regarding a defendant’s state of mind, such as intentional or willful action. Regulators sometimes pursue civil actions, with their lower burden of proof, instead of criminal ones. They may also offer incentives, of a sort, to potential defendants to encourage them to cooperate with investigations. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced a settlement with a financial company accused of violating the Banking Secrecy Act (BSA). The company’s “extensive remedial measures” reportedly led the DOJ to enter into a non-prosecution agreement, resulting in penalties that were possibly less than what the company might have faced had the case gone to court.

The BSA effectively enlists certain businesses to assist in federal law enforcement, tax, regulatory, and counter-terrorism efforts. See 31 U.S.C. § 5311. It primarily applies to “financial institutions,” which it defines very broadly to include federally insured banks, securities brokers, investment banks, insurance companies, finance companies, vehicle dealers, casinos, and other businesses “whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory matters.” Id. at § 5312(a)(2). Money laundering is an area of particular focus, since financial institutions are often an essential component of that process. The statute requires financial institutions “to report any suspicious transaction relevant to a possible violation of law or regulation.” Id. at § 5318(g). This is commonly known as a “suspicious activity report” (SAR).

The company involved in the DOJ investigation operates a money services business that allows customers to send money abroad. This fits within the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution,” since it involves the “transmission of funds.” Id. at § 5312(a)(2)(R). The DOJ alleged that the company failed to maintain an “anti-money laundering compliance program” (AML) in accordance with the BSA. It claimed that the company processed over 30 million “remittance transactions,” totaling over $8.8 billion, between the U.S. and Mexico from 2007 to about 2012. The company’s own monitoring system, according to the DOJ, alerted on more than 18,000 transactions during that time. The company allegedly failed to investigate all but about 10 of those alerts, and it only submitted nine SARs. The DOJ maintained that these failures were “willful.”

“Theft” is one of the most foundational offenses in criminal law, encompassing a wide range of alleged violations of other people’s property rights. The simplest definition of theft is taking someone else’s property without the owner’s consent. Each element of that definition, however, can be profoundly complicated, depending on the circumstances. Which sorts of acts constitute “taking” something? How should the law define the owner’s “consent” or lack thereof? State theft laws cover a wide range of acts. Texas has consolidated almost all Texas theft offenses under a single section of the Penal Code, but many states still have multiple theft offenses on the books. State prosecutors in Maine, for example, recently brought charges of “theft by deception” against a woman accused of obtaining more than $10,000 in donations by falsely claiming to have advanced breast cancer.

Criminal offenses that fall under the general legal category of “theft” include larceny, shoplifting, embezzlement, and false pretenses. The offense of “theft by deception,” under Maine law, involves “obtain[ing] or exercis[ing] control over property of another as a result of deception and with intent to deprive the other person of the property.” 17-A Me. Rev. Stat. § 354(1)(A). The statute defines “deception” as “an impression that is false and that the person does not believe to be true,” which a person “creates,” “reinforces,” or “fails to correct.” Id. at § 354(2).

In Texas, the consolidated “theft” statute includes multiple offenses previously defined separately, including “theft by false pretext.” Tex. Pen. Code § 31.02. Finding the equivalent of the Maine statute requires examining various definitions. “Theft” consists of “unlawfully appropriat[ing] property with intent to deprive the owner of property.” Id. at § 31.03(a). “Unlawful” appropriation of property can occur when the person does not have “the owner’s effective consent.” Id. at § 31.03(b)(1). “Effective consent” excludes consent that was “induced by deception or coercion.” Id. at § 31.01(3)(A). Finally, the definition of “deception” is similar to the one found in Maine. Id. at § 31.01(1).

The border search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows law enforcement officers at or near a national border, such as the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, to search people and their personal effects without a warrant. In some situations, police might not even need a reasonable suspicion of federal or Texas criminal or immigration violations. Courts have placed some limits on the border search exception, but the question of whether law enforcement officers at the border can search the contents of electronic devices without a warrant remains unsettled on a national level. Many electronic devices have considerable storage capacity, leading to concerns over not only individual privacy but also professional and commercial privacy issues like trade secrets. Proposed legislation, and at least one lawsuit, are seeking to place limits on border searches of laptop computers, smartphones, and other devices.

Courts have long held that travelers at the U.S. border have a lessened expectation of privacy. One of the few courts to address the question of electronic devices held that the warrantless search of a person’s laptop did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the search did not cause “exceptional damage” to the computer, nor was the search conducted in a “particularly offensive manner.” United States v. Arnold, 533 F. 3d 1003, 1009 (9th Cir. 2008). The Ninth Circuit limited that ruling several years later, holding that a reasonable suspicion is required for the forensic examination of electronic devices in some cases. United States v. Cotterman, 709 F.3d 952 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).

Proposed legislation in Congress has sought to protect individuals at the border from warrantless searches of electronic devices. The Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act of 2008, which did not become law, stated that “laptops and similar electronic devices” are different from other personal effects, since they “can contain the equivalent of a full library of information about a person, including medical records, financial records,…and privileged work product.” S.3612 § 2(4) (110th Cong., Sep. 26, 2008). The bill established strict requirements regarding suspicion, limited how searches could be conducted, and set restrictions on the use and retention of information obtained.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from conducting warrantless searches and seizures. Over the past century or so, courts have found that police may conduct a search or seize property without a warrant under certain circumstances, provided that they have probable cause to believe that they will find evidence directly related to criminal activity. Technological advances have also required ongoing challenges to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The use of digital tracking evidence has recently posed many challenges for defendants, prosecutors, and courts. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late 2017 in a case challenging the use of cell phone location data by police without a warrant. The court is likely to issue a decision in Carpenter v. United States in the summer of 2018, which may affect Texas criminal cases moving forward.

An individual must have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” for the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement to apply. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). When an individual voluntarily discloses information to a third party, courts have generally held that they no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information. This is known as the “third-party doctrine.” For example, the Supreme Court held that the warrantless use of a pen register to record the phone numbers dialed from a telephone was not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, since the telephone company would receive and keep records of those numbers. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979).

The Carpenter case questions whether certain uses of telecommunications technology involve a genuinely voluntary disclosure. In Smith, the court treated dialing a telephone number as the voluntary disclosure of information. Almost any sort of electronic communication, however, requires “disclosing” information to the telecommunications provider. This raises questions about how voluntary such a disclosure could be. The only alternative would be to limit all communications to in-person conversation, which is not exactly practical in the 21st century.

The term “white collar crime” encompasses a wide range of offenses involving elements of theft or fraud. The offense of embezzlement, for example, involves outright theft from an employer. Other white collar offenses are more complicated and much more difficult for prosecutors to prove. Federal securities laws do not define a specific offense called “insider trading,” but it is a well-known term in this area of law. Insider trading is a type of securities fraud that involves the use of information that is not available to the public. This is usually “inside information” about a corporation that affects trades in that company’s stock. A recently filed indictment goes in a different direction, alleging the use of nonpublic information from a government agency. United States v. Blaszczak, et al., No. 1:17-cr-00308, indictment (S.D.N.Y., May 24, 2017). The case involves a relatively unknown industry known as “political intelligence,” in which consultants obtain information about government operations for clients.

The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 regulates the trading of securities. Insider trading occurs when a person who has inside access to a corporation with publicly traded stock uses information that is available to them as an insider, and therefore not available to the public, to make a decision about trading that corporation’s stock. This puts all other stockholders and potential stockholders at a disadvantage, and it can affect the market as a whole. If, for example, a corporate insider learns that the corporation is going to be the target of an upcoming government investigation, it might constitute insider trading for that insider to sell all or most of their stock before any public announcement of the investigation. The news is likely to have a negative effect on the stock’s price, but the insider has an unfair advantage because of their access to information.

Rather than corporate inside information, the Blaszczak case involves inside information about a government agency. The field of “political intelligence” is difficult to define. It essentially involves consultants with access to government officials. The consultants are able to obtain useful information about government operations for their clients, who are often hedge funds and other investors. In order to be valuable, the information must not be generally available to the public. In this way, it resembles inside corporate information.

Continue reading

Federal prosecutors recently announced the settlement of a civil claim against a former money transfer company executive, which related to acts allegedly performed by the defendant in his executive capacity. U.S. Treas. Dept. v. Haider, No. 1:14-cv-09987, complaint (S.D.N.Y., Dec. 18, 2014), transferred to No. 0:15-cv-01518 (D. Minn., Mar. 17, 2015). For certain “white collar” offenses, prosecutors and regulators may bring a civil lawsuit to recover penalties and damages, rather than a criminal case. One reason is that the burden of proof is usually lower in civil cases. Instead of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the state must prove liability by either a preponderance of evidence or clear and convincing evidence. The government filed suit against the defendant for alleged violations of the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act, more commonly known as the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) of 1970.

The BSA requires financial institutions in the U.S. to take certain actions to assist government investigations of alleged financial crimes, such as money laundering, as well as “intelligence or counterintelligence activities” intended “to protect against international terrorism.” 31 U.S.C. § 5311. For example, financial institutions must establish anti-money laundering programs (AMLs) according to guidelines established by the government. 31 U.S.C. § 5318(h), 31 C.F.R. § 1020.210. They are also required to keep records of various transactions and to report “suspicious” transactions in a “suspicious activity report” (SAR). 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g), 31 C.F.R. § 1020.320.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is responsible for investigating and prosecuting alleged BSA violations. Civil liability for violations may extend not only to the financial institution itself but also to “a partner, director, officer, or employee.” 31 U.S.C. § 5321. Criminal penalties may apply to any “person,” defined by federal law to include both individuals and business entities. Id. at § 5322, 1 U.S.C. § 1.

Continue reading

The term “probation” applies to a variety of outcomes in criminal cases, usually ordered by a court as an alternative to a jail or prison term. Courts impose sentences based on statutory authority and sentencing guidelines, and they often have discretion to “probate” sentences for a specified period of time. If the defendant abides by all of the conditions set by the court for the duration of the probation period, their case will be closed. If they do not meet all of the requirements, or they commit an act found to be in violation of their probation terms, the state may ask the court to revoke their probation. This can result in the imposition of the original sentence. When probation revocation coincides with another criminal case, the proceedings can appear very confusing. A recent case in a Georgia court, for example, involved a man acquitted in a criminal case but sent to prison anyway because of probation revocation.

Texas uses the term “community supervision” to refer to “a continuum of programs and sanctions” that a court may order. Tex. Code Crim. P. Art 42A.001(1). Two types of community supervision are possible:

– “Probation” generally refers to the suspension of a sentence after an adjudication of guilt, based on either a verdict or a plea. The court enters a finding of guilt or recognizes a plea of no contest and imposes a sentence. Rather than ordering the defendant to begin serving the sentence, however, the court orders that the sentence be probated, identifies the length of the probation period, and sets conditions for the defendant.
– “Deferred adjudication” is a form of community supervision in which the court accepts a defendant’s guilty or no contest plea, but it does not enter a final adjudication of guilt. Id. at Art. 42A.101. The court orders services and sanctions for the defendant, much like with probation.

Continue reading

The protection of intellectual property is critically important for many businesses, particularly in the electronics and technology industries. Computer and software companies rely extensively on copyright, trademark, and patent protections. Most acts of alleged copyright infringement result in civil claims, but federal criminal law allows prosecution in some situations. An individual often described as a “e-waste recycler” is facing a prison sentence for acts that he stated were intended to help extend the lives of personal computers, but which a major software company considered infringement. Prosecutors indicted him on 21 counts in 2016. United States v. Lundgren, No. 16-cr-80090, superseding indictment (S.D. Fla., Feb. 2, 2017). Last year, he pleaded guilty to two counts, criminal copyright infringement and conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods. An appeals court has now affirmed the district judge’s sentence of 15 months’ imprisonment and a $50,000 fine. United States v. Lundgren, No. 17-12466, slip op. (11th Cir., Apr. 11, 2018).

Copyright infringement involves the use of copyrighted material without a license from the copyright owner. It becomes a criminal offense when a person infringes a copyright “willfully,” and “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” 17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(1)(A). The penalty for criminal copyright infringement depends in part on the number of copies made of any infringed works and their total value. If a defendant is found to have produced or distributed 10 or more copies, “including by electronic means,” they could face up to five years in prison and a fine. 18 U.S.C. § 2319(b)(1).

The defendant in Lundgren operated a business that refurbished discarded electronic devices, such as cell phones, for resale. His legal problems began when he attempted to take on the issue of “planned obsolescence.” This is a practice by many designers and manufacturers to set a limit on the useful life of a product or device, requiring consumers to purchase a new one. Light bulbs offer one example. While they reportedly could last much longer, light bulb manufacturers design them with a limited life span. Computers and cell phones become effectively unusable as newer software and hardware enter the market.

Numerous statutes throughout the country identify and prohibit controlled substances, creating an elaborate set of drug schedules containing hundreds of plants, synthetic compounds, and other materials. Correct identification of an allegedly illegal drug is a key part of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Police officers charged with enforcing drug laws cannot reasonably be expected to recognize all, or even most, of these substances on sight. Field kits used to test suspicious substances, however, have a very poor track record for reliability and have led to multiple wrongful convictions in Texas drug crime cases. Police often focus on a small number of drugs that, because of their general familiarity, tend to stand out among the multitudes of substances contained in state and federal schedules. A recent case, which involved the inaccurate visual identification of a hibiscus plant as marijuana, demonstrates this problem.

Both the federal Controlled Substances Act and its Texas equivalent prohibit the possession and distribution of marijuana. In Texas, it is an offense to “knowingly or intentionally possesses a usable quantity of marihuana.” Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.121(a). The offense ranges from a Class B misdemeanor to a felony punishable by life imprisonment, depending on the amount. Texas prohibits “delivery” of marijuana, defined as “transfer[ring]…to another a controlled substance,” with similar penalties. Id. at §§ 481.002(8), 481.120. Delivery of marijuana to a child is a second-degree felony, regardless of the amount. Id. at § 481.122. All of these offenses require proof that the defendant acted “knowingly” and that the substance at issue was, in fact, marijuana.

A lawsuit filed by a married couple in Pennsylvania illustrates how quickly misidentification of an alleged controlled substance can go wrong. Cramer v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., et al, No. 17-11043, complaint (Pa. Ct. Comm. Pleas, Butler Cty., Nov. 16, 2017), removed to No. 2:17-cv-01657 (W.D. Pa., Dec. 22, 2017). Although the case involves a civil lawsuit, one erroneous field test could have made it a criminal matter. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, an insurance agent visited their home in October 2017 to survey damage from a fallen tree. They allege that the agent took photographs of several hibiscus plants, mistakenly believing them to be marijuana plants. The agent allegedly turned these photographs over to local police and reported that the plaintiffs were growing marijuana on their property.

Contact Information