Monday, January 11, 2016

Ex-husband attempts to extort alimony payments

US v. White:  William White had received a 30-month sentence for making threatening phone calls to a university administrator and sending letters of intimidation to several tenants that filed a fair housing complaint against him in 2010.  He had appealed his conviction and sentence, and the Fourth Circuit remanded his case for re-sentencing on May 14, 2012.  Out on supervised release, Mr. White failed to appear for re-sentencing, having absconded to Mexico.  White’s then-estranged wife, with whom he had at least an informal alimony agreement, stopped making alimony payments when she learned he was “on the lam” because she feared that she’d be charged with aiding a fugitive.  White began threatening her to get his cash.  The woman he went to Mexico with began cooperating with the FBI; Mr. White’s attempts to extort his ex-wife formed the basis for this case.   After an anonymous jury convicted him (he also had a prior history of interfering with witnesses and a juror) for felony transmission of threats through interstate commerce with the intent to extort, as well as the lesser-included offense of transmitting a threat (without the intent to extort), White received a 92-month federal sentence.

On appeal, White challenged the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial, and disputed the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed.  The main focus of White’s appeal concerned the legal requirements for his convictions, specifically whether he could have intended to “extort” alimony payments to which he claims he was legally entitled.  While the instruction that the district court gave at trial was erroneous in light of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Elonis v. United States (a case which considered true threats and the limits of speech on social media), the Fourth Circuit held that the error here was harmless, the jury having “soundly rejected” White’s defense that he did not send any emails to his ex-wife.  After Elonis, a conviction pursuant to § 875(c) requires that the following three elements be met: 1) that the defendant knowingly transmitted a communication in interstate or foreign commerce; 2) that the defendant subjectively intended the communication as a threat; and 3) the content of the communication contained a “true threat” to kidnap or injure.

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