Friday, April 07, 2017

Tax attorney fails in Franks and reasonableness challenges

US v. White:  Saundra White appeals her fraud and identity theft convictions, challenging the affidavit for a search warrant authorizing the search of her home, which lead to the discovery of a fraud scheme paper trail, as well as the reasonableness of her sentence.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

In this case, Ms. White was approached by a woman who attended the same church as her for many years, Ms. Hiler, as Hiler knew White was an attorney, and Hiler needed assistance to create a guardianship for her cousin, Ms. Millner, who was rendered helpless by a severe stroke.  Unfortunately, it appears that White took the opportunity to defraud both women to the tune of over $800,000.  Hiler became suspicious when, after Millner’s death, Hiler received notices that she as Millner’s estate representative, owed large sums of money for debts of the estate.  Another lawyer confirmed Hiler’s suspicions, which lead to state and federal investigations of White.

The agent who requested a search warrant relied upon Hiler’s statements to police, as well as 25 years of experience, to support the affidavit for search and seizure warrant.  The search “uncovered a bevy of incriminating evidence” of White’s fraud scheme.  During Hiler’s testimony, White requested a Franks hearing, as White argued that Hiler’s testimony called the validity of the warrant into question.  The Fourth Circuit determined that the district court correctly rejected White’s request for a Franks hearing because White did not make a substantial showing that the investigating agent knowingly or intentionally or with reckless disregard, make a false statement in the affidavit.

Regarding the reasonableness of the sentence, White challenged the application of sophisticated means enhancement, as well as an enhancement for misrepresenting a government agency.  The latter enhancement was based on two pieces of evidence: the fraudulent tax statements White created to induce Hiler to remit cash, and 2) a voicemail recording that purportedly came from a tax collector for the US Treasury Department and the State of Maryland.  The Fourth Circuit found that the enhancement encompasses any fraud that involved a misrepresentation, and the application note to the guideline does not explicitly require a direct misrepresentation.  The panel affirmed the application for misrepresenting a government agency.  According to the Fourth Circuit, the sophisticated means enhancement applies to the entirety of a scheme, and can be made up of individual actions which are not in themselves sophisticated; the panel concluded that the district court did not clearly err in applying this enhancement.

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