Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer Breaks Down Monumental Case Before High Court
Our federal criminal defense lawyer lays out the most crucial opioid-related High Court case in five decades and what prescribers need to know.
Being charged with a federal crime is one of the most daunting, overwhelming experiences you can ever face. Why? Because the U.S. government is strong, and it’s relentless in its mission to convict you. But that doesn’t mean the Feds can’t be beaten in court. All it takes is the right federal criminal defense lawyer on your side.
A federal criminal case is extremely complex, and it’s important to know what you’re up against before, during, and after. With virtually unlimited resources at their disposal, the Feds can conduct widespread investigations to confirm their suspicions that you’re breaking the law. An army of powerful federal agents from the FBI, DEA, or Department of Homeland Security can arrest you on a moment’s notice. In court, their well-trained prosecutors are methodical in successfully proving you committed a federal crime.
More critically, federal criminal cases have high conviction rates and mandatory minimum sentences. These often carry harsher penalties than what state courts will impose; sentences can include decades of federal incarceration, along with tens of millions of dollars in fines.
Suffice it to say, a federal conviction can destroy your career. Your business. Your entire life.
Because federal crimes are rather broad, the first step is understanding what they are all about, how they are charged in court, and how criminal attorneys plan a defense against them.
For a crime to be deemed a federal offense, it must violate U.S. federal law and/or involve a defendant crossing state lines in order to commit criminal conduct. Note that a federal crime does not require physically traveling across state lines; sending something illegal through the U.S. Postal Service or via email, text, or online video also qualifies, as it is occurring between two or more states.
Some federal crimes are rooted in causing physical harm, such as homicide, sexual abuse, kidnapping, armed robbery, or firearms. But many others are nonviolent in nature, such as fraud (including tax, wire, commercial, and healthcare), drug trafficking, embezzlement, and money laundering. These kinds of crimes are often referred to as white collar offenses, because people who are in positions of executive power or have affluent careers are usually the ones targeted for federal criminal investigation.
What these and other federal crimes have in common is that they are tied to the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution. This gives “power of the Federal Government to regulate interstate commerce.” Although many federal crimes don’t have much (if any) impact on interstate commerce, the Feds can — and often do — use this clause as a basis for charging.
If a crime violates both state and federal law, a defendant can face both state and federal charges for it. This means the “double jeopardy” rule, where a defendant cannot be tried for the same crime, doesn’t apply.
It’s for this reason that retaining a reputable federal defense attorney — who can challenge evidence and experts, point to significant flaws in the prosecution’s case, and obtain court victories before anything ever reaches trial — is crucial.
The federal criminal process often begins with the DEA, FBI, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, or other law enforcement agencies conducting a thorough investigation. It can take months or even years before the government determines it has gathered enough evidence to bring a federal criminal case against you. Once it does, and an arrest warrant is obtained, federal agents will apprehend you.
It’s at this time that your best, most secure move is let the authorities know that you wish to contact a federal defense attorney. You should not say anything to the federal agents, as anything you do say could incriminate you; instead, your lawyer will advise you on what to do.
In federal court, a Magistrate Judge will explain the charges against you; inform you of your constitutional rights, such as the right to remain silent; and determine whether you should be released pretrial on bond. Based on the bond conditions, you could be prevented from leaving your immediate vicinity and forced to surrender passports or other travel documents.
In addition, depending on your profession and the federal charges against you, you could be prevented from working. As an example, a medical provider who is suspected of Medicare fraud may be prohibited from employment in the healthcare field while their case is active.
Your federal criminal defense lawyer will then begin pretrial preparations and work with you to decide the best way to proceed with the case. This involves your attorney reviewing the evidence that the government has against you; filing motions so that the judge can review a specific legal issue vital to your case; and retaining the most qualified experts necessary to counter what the Feds’ experts are claiming.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service cites drug-related crimes and economic offenses such as white collar crimes as among the more frequent federal offenses, as does the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Here, our criminal defense attorneys explain what these federal crimes entail, the penalties that someone suspected of these crimes could face, and the ways we at Chapman Law Group fight them.
In its simplest definition, criminal conspiracy (18 U.S.C. § 371) is an arrangement between two or more people to commit a federal criminal offense. Because the agreement itself is the crime, someone could be convicted of conspiracy even if no actual crime was ever carried out. All it takes is for a co-conspirator to have knowledge of the agreement and the intent under that agreement for a federal crime to be committed.
However, at least one co-conspirator must take an “overt” action in moving the conspiracy forward. This overt act need not be an actual crime, only something to indicate that the people involved in the conspiracy knew of the plan to commit a federal crime and intended to follow through on it.
For example, if the co-conspirators discussed a scheme to launder money, one of the parties may openly act by setting up a bank account to be used as shell account for moving the illegitimate funds. The fact that the account was set up is enough for the co-conspirators to be held criminally accountable for their agreement to launder money, even if that account never gets touched.
By this rationale, you could be convicted of criminal conspiracy but acquitted of the substantive crime you conspired to commit. As an example, Jeff Carpoff was charged with orchestrating a $1 billion Ponzi scheme involving solar generators; the government called it “the largest criminal fraud scheme in the history of the Eastern District of California.” He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, and in 2021 he was sentenced to 30 years’ incarceration.
Conspiracy is the most frequent charge that prosecutors will impose, and they will include it with other federal criminal charges such as the ones featured on this list. And, because evidentiary rules are relaxed for co-conspirators’ statements, prosecutors have a better chance of presenting juries with incriminating evidence.
Punishment for criminal conspiracy varies, as it’s based on the minimum sentencing for the underlying felony crime that the defendant either committed or was planning to commit. This means a federal judge could sentence someone to 20 years’ imprisonment for conspiring to commit racketeering, as 20 years is the maximum sentence for one count of racketeering.
All of this is up to the discretion of the judge, however, which was the case of Texas financier R. Allen Stanford, who was found guilty of 13 counts of conspiracy in a $7 billion investment fraud scheme. The judge handed down a 110-year sentence, imposing 45 years of that sentence based on conspiracy.
Additionally, a federal judge can sentence you to restitution, meaning you’ll have to pay back the victims of the scheme. In high-profile cases such as the Enron scandal, that figure can be in the tens of millions for an individual defendant.
A federal defense lawyer usually relies on one (or a combination) of four arguments when fighting a white collar conspiracy charge:
You Did Not, at Any Time, Agree to Participate with the Co-Conspirator(s): By questioning the existence of the agreement, the defense can cast reasonable doubt. Unless the prosecution has evidence that you and your partner(s) intended to carry out a crime, this can be difficult to prove. As well, your lawyer can assert that you were wrongfully charged with conspiracy because you and your alleged co-conspirator(s) were speaking hypothetically among each other about committing a crime (“If you were to rob a bank, what do you think would be the best way to do it?”).
Neither You nor Your Alleged Co-Conspirator(s) Committed an Overt Act to Further the Agreement: In order for the alleged scheming party to be charged with conspiracy, someone in the group would have had to do something to get the scheme in motion. Your federal defense attorney can argue that you and your accused partner(s) did nothing to prepare for the crime. In addition, your attorney can make this argument if what the prosecution deems as incriminating actions were innocent and unfounded.
You Withdrew from the Conspiracy Before Anything Ever Happened: Your federal criminal lawyer can help you avoid a conviction if you are able to prove you exited the scheme before the crime either happened or was intended to happen. This will require proof that you made it clear to your co-conspirator(s) that you withdrew from participation.
You Were Entrapped: Entrapment means you may have been persuaded by a law enforcement officer or government agent to take part in the conspiracy. If not for the agent’s persuasion, your federal defense lawyer will assert, you would not otherwise have become involved or had any intention of committing the crime.
Of course, the facts can dictate the best defense for a federal offense, as was the case in a criminal matter our attorneys handled. It involved two Pittsburgh-area doctors accused of conspiracy, on allegations of issuing opioids to addicts in exchange for cash. Our lawyers successfully argued that the DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Pittsburgh and West Virginia were wrong to question the defendants’ intent, and that they were not among the five co-conspirators who had either pleaded or were found guilty.
Drug trafficking, under 21 U.S.C. § 841, is the selling, transporting, or illegally importing of unlawful and/or prescription controlled substances. In order to be charged, federal prosecutors must show the perpetrator’s involvement in the sale, importation, or transport, or that the defendant intended to sell or deliver the drugs.
A drug trafficking scheme need not be as extensive as a convoy of trucks carrying bricks of cocaine; just carrying a small quantity of illicit drugs, such as fentanyl-laced opioids, between two jurisdictions can be enough to charge.
State courts often handle minor drug trafficking offenses, with federal prosecutors taking on the more serious crimes, such as transporting drugs across state lines or a national border and being arrested by FBI, DEA, or other federal agents.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that in 2020, drug offenses were the second most committed federal crimes, with the majority of them involving drug trafficking.
All controlled substances are different. Some can be more dangerous than others depending on the type and amount involved. The DEA’s mandatory sentencing minimums reflect the varying levels of federal penalties for drug trafficking.
For example, a defendant can be sentenced to:
Also, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), use of a weapon during a federal drug trafficking offense can add up to 30 years onto the sentence, as can repeat offenses.
In addition, the Feds can seize your assets, as they did with suspected drug kingpin César Emilio Peralta’s four business ventures. Peralta, who has been dubbed “El Abusador,” is accused of conspiring to import heroin and cocaine into the U.S. and faces a life sentence.
For you to overcome federal drug trafficking charges, the first and best steps are calling a lawyer and not speaking to any law enforcement agencies upon arrest. If you are apprehended, the only words leaving your lips should be: “I want a lawyer.”
Federal agents are well-trained in getting suspects to make mistakes of admission, regardless of whether they were actually trafficking. Without an attorney at your side, you’ll be more susceptible to say something that will make it easier for the Feds to convict you on a drug trafficking charge.
Once you have retained a federal criminal lawyer, their main objective is to provide a compelling defense. This means discrediting federal prosecutors’ claims that you had a controlled substance in your possession and you either distributed it or intended to do so.
Among the more common defenses to drug trafficking charges:
Those defenses, as well as many others, require gathering as much evidence as possible to counter what law enforcement and prosecutors are claiming as proof of drug trafficking. Any piece of evidence can be key to your defense — even something as simple as a text message that demonstrates you did not intend to distribute any controlled substances that were in your possession.
What is most important on your end, however, is to not bow to pressure to take a federal plea deal (also known as Rule 11 plea agreement) if you are not guilty; exerting your right to trial is a constitutional right.
At Chapman Law Group, our criminal defense attorneys are skilled in fighting drug trafficking charges and DEA matters. We have an extensive history of obtaining pretrial dismissals and not-guilty verdicts, in addition to acquittals due to the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence.
Our attorneys have also been able to attain mitigated sentences for clients should they be found guilty, or craft beneficial plea agreements if it is in a client’s best interest. One example involves a Michigan physician, who was charged with seven felony counts — drug trafficking, among them — stemming from undercover visits by police. We worked out a deal for the client to plead to one count of placing false information on a medical record; meanwhile, everything else, including all drug trafficking charges, would be dismissed. The physician faced no jail time and was still able to practice medicine.
Wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343) is the act of scheming to defraud persons or businesses through electronic communication. This can be done via phone, texting, email, fax, social media postings, radio, TV, or any other electronic medium. It’s a federal crime because by using these means and devices, you can transmit communication across state and national lines. The most common wire fraud convictions are for phishing, spam-related financial crimes, telemarketing scams, and identity theft.
To be found guilty, prosecutors must prove that you, as defendant, acted with intent; deliberately devised, or participated in, a scheme to defraud; and used electronic communication as the means to do so. No solicitation needs to be involved for prosecutors to levy wire fraud charges; all the perpetrator needs to do is discuss fraudulent business-related matters, whether to an unassuming citizen or to someone who is part of the fraud scheme.
It’s common for wire fraud to be included among other charges, as federal prosecutors want to be sure they have enough to stand on if they are not successful in convicting a defendant of another, more serious crime. For example, in a lengthy opioid strike force investigation, a West Virginia physician was suspected of healthcare fraud for illicit drug distribution. Prosecutors added wire fraud to the more than 30 counts he faced. After a 3 1/2-year legal battle, our attorneys were successful in having all charges dismissed.
If you are found guilty of wire fraud under federal law, as an individual, you could face up to $250,000 in fines (for organizations, fines are up to $500,000); a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment; and restitution. Should you commit wire fraud that’s related to a presidentially declared major disaster or involves a financial institution, you could face additional penalties of 30 years’ imprisonment and $1 million in fines.
Note that these penalties are considered per count, and every email, phone call, or other electronic communication can be considered its own separate count. Using the most recent example, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud for intentionally deceiving investors and patients about what her blood-testing startup, Theranos, could do. Although she has yet to be sentenced, she faces $750,000 in fines (at $250,000 per count) and up to 60 years in prison (at 20 years per count).
As your counsel, a reputable wire fraud defense lawyer will explore every avenue of your particular situation. In general, though, these are the more frequent wire fraud defenses.
Good Faith: As one of the more common defenses against wire fraud, arguing good faith means your attorney must prove that you lacked the requisite intent to defraud. Among the examples, you relied on an attorney’s advice, complied with state laws, did not have a financial motive, or sent refunds to customers.
Mistake of Fact: What happens if you communicate misleading facts that you believe to be true, based on the information you were given originally? This is mistake of fact. If your federal lawyer is successful with this defense, the government will not be able convict you, as you did not knowingly or intentionally communicate false information in an attempt to defraud.
Puffery: Sometimes, businesspeople will use exaggerations or flattery as a means of attracting customers. You may have heard a computer salesman use such statements as, “Our laptop PC is the best on the market.” This is not considered illegal. Wire fraud criminal defense lawyers will be able to argue that the statements in question — which the Feds would claim are misrepresentational and fraudulent — were not put together as a means of deceiving someone, and this cannot be considered a federal offense.
Statute of Limitations: Though there are some exceptions, the federal statute of limitations for wire fraud is five years. It begins on your last alleged instance of using a computer, phone, text, or other means of electronic communication to defraud. Your attorney may be able to assert that the charge is time barred if the prosecution’s claimed action(s) had ceased more than five years prior.
Mail fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1341) involves sending items via the U.S. Postal Service or any private or commercial interstate carrier (UPS, FedEx) for the purpose of a fraudulent scheme (obtaining money or property under false pretenses). This can be prosecuted as a federal crime if the mail is sent over state lines.
The more common mail fraud cases involve schemes to bilk citizens by promising services such as employment or insurance for a fee; enticing them with sweepstakes and lottery opportunities; asking to contribute to nonexistent charities; or offering bogus investment opportunities.
Mail fraud isn’t limited to solicitation, and the government can charge you with mail fraud even if you did not obtain any money or property from a victim. It’s the fact that you used a mail service as part of the scheme that counts. Just sending fraudulent business-related invoices or receipts to an associate who is part of the scheme can constitute mail fraud. Even if the mail was not a vital part of fraud scheme, but rather an incidental one, you can still be charged.
As with wire fraud, federal prosecutors must prove — and provide evidence asserting — that a fraudulent scheme was in place. Often, the Feds will investigate fraud cases as both mail fraud and wire fraud, allowing them to be prosecuted federally. This happened in one of the largest federal crimes of all time: the Bernie Madoff investment fraud scheme.
Mail fraud is punishable by fine of up to $250,000 per count and up to 20 years’ imprisonment per count. If the scheme involves federal disaster relief or a financial institution, the punishment is raised to up to $1 million in fines and up to 30 years’ incarceration. A federal court also can impose restitution for the victims’ losses.
Among the defenses your federal criminal lawyer can assert in a mail fraud matter:
Unaware of the Fraud: In many federal offense cases, multiple actors are involved in a fraud scheme. Let’s say you were directed by your employer to send something constituting fraud out via the U.S. Postal Service, and you did so — not having any idea that the contents were part of the scheme. Your federal crime attorney can show you were oblivious to the fraudulent scheme itself, and your actions won’t be enough for the Feds to convict you of mail fraud.
What Was Mailed Did Not Play into the Larger Alleged Fraud Scheme: As mentioned, even if the items being mailed are not central to a fraud scheme, they can be considered incidental and thus lead to a conviction. Even so, a federal defense lawyer will thoroughly examine what the government is claiming to be a critical component of the scheme’s big picture. It might not be, meaning your attorney can help you overcome the allegation.
Good Faith: One part of a federal prosecution is proving malicious intent. If this was not the case for you, your federal criminal defense lawyer will argue that you had no intention of committing mail fraud.
Statute of Limitations: Mail fraud charges must be filed within five years of the offense (10 years for fraud involving financial institutions). One of the best case scenarios is the statute of limitations in your case expiring, in which case your federal defense attorney can have your case dismissed.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1961, is a federal law that concerns organized crime — specifically, making it illegal to control or acquire a business via certain crimes or an income stream from those crimes.
Racketeering activity includes bribery, illegal gambling, counterfeiting, kidnapping, drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and embezzlement.
Federal prosecutors can charge someone with participating — even indirectly — in these crimes or conspiring to do so. In order to convict, the Feds must prove you engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity, and that you had a direct investment or interest in the criminal enterprise in question.
A RICO case usually involves multiple defendants. For example, 2020 saw 40 people charged in a South Carolina racketeering conspiracy case that included murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and firearms. However, there are instances in which only a handful of defendants, or even one, are convicted of RICO. In 2021, R&B singer R. Kelly’s racketeering trial led to him being found guilty of sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, and sex trafficking.
Conviction under the RICO Act can mean a 20-year federal prison sentence, as well as a $250,000 fine. In addition, you may be forced to pay double the amount of proceeds earned from illicit activity.
However, prison time can increase, depending on the underlying crime. In what is said to be the longest sentence in history for a white collar crime conviction, Sholam Weiss received an 835-year sentence (later commuted) for his role in a $450 million insurance fraud scheme.
But racketeering penalties are quite severe in another sense: the federal government can seize your assets. Asset forfeiture can include not only proceeds obtained through racketeering, but also physical property, such as your home or business. By seizing assets, the Feds are assured that they can’t be transferred and hidden outside of the U.S. before prosecution commences.
Because racketeering charges are frequently complex, the Feds will often think they have all their bases covered. But a well-seasoned federal criminal lawyer will be able to look deep into your case and find the best defenses.
Sometimes it can be a simple matter of mistaken identity, and you were not involved in the alleged crime(s) in any way. Or there was never a criminal organization that directed the suspected criminal activity; rather, a loose, informal group of individuals were involved. In some cases, a business that’s accused of being a corrupt practice may have made a small, insignificant number of errors, but the prosecution exaggerated them to be on the level of racketeering.
In one of Chapman Law Group’s biggest federal criminal defense cases, our lawyers successfully argued that a Mid-Michigan physician accused of overprescribing did not exhibit a pattern of racketeering activity. In fact, the defendant was losing money because he was refusing to take patients who did not comply.
As Ronald W. Chapman II of Chapman Law Group told the jury at the trial: “The prosecution hasn’t met their burden on financial gain because they haven’t traced a single dollar from this alleged racketeering criminal enterprise to [the defendant] as profit.”
In addition, because our criminal defense lawyers are well-versed on the complexities of federal forfeiture statutes and current caselaw, we were able to force the Feds to return our physician client’s $6 million in assets.
A federal crime, money laundering (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956-57) is a financial scheme in which the perpetrators disguise the source and destination of illicitly obtained funds. The purpose is to make it appear that the money in question was earned legitimately, thus evading any criminal investigation or federal prosecution for the underlying crime (fraud, racketeering, drug trafficking, etc.).
Often, the money “cleaning” process involves using the illicit funds as part of commercial transactions or bank transfers with legitimate companies. Tax evasion, false accounting practices, shell companies, and holding offshore accounts can be considered money laundering schemes.
Money laundering follows a common, three-phase pattern. The illicit funds are first placed in the launderer’s hands (the placement stage). The launderer then passes the funds through a complex scheme of transactions/transfers to obscure where the money originated (also known as layering). Finally, the launderer retrieves the money in a vague, indirect way (integration).
Both individuals and companies can be held liable, as was the case with financial group Goldman Sachs. The firm was accused of running a five-year money laundering and foreign bribery scheme to the tune of $1.6 billion. One of its chairs pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money, while the company itself in 2020 agreed to pay nearly $3 billion.
The federal government has several statutes in place that address and prosecute money laundering crimes, including the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.
Depending on how you are convicted, you could face up to 20 years in federal prison for money laundering. In addition, you could be ordered to pay fines of up to $500,000 or twice the value of the laundered money, whichever is greater. (As the Goldman Sachs case shows, corporations can be liable for much more in fines.) Just as with racketeering/RICO claims, the Feds also can put your assets in forfeiture.
In money laundering cases, it all comes down to documents and physical evidence. The government will rely on witnesses and experts such as forensic accountants, but its main stock in asserting that illicit money was laundered will be bank records, transaction statements, and specific transactions, in both paper and electronic formats. To overcome these claims, your federal defense lawyer will analyze these records and related evidence — often using investigative experts — to determine what will be helpful and what will be harmful to the defense.
As part of the defense strategy, a federal lawyer who handles money laundering cases will challenge the prosecution’s evidence by providing a different version of the alleged criminal events. The purpose is to raise reasonable doubt, so that the judge and jury will believe that the prosecutor has insufficient evidence to prove their case.
Common defenses to money laundering include:
Also, the defense can attack elements related to the overall amount of ill-gotten funds. As an example, the prosecution’s forensic accountant expert can point to a specific transaction and say that $2 million in supposed laundered money can be traced to it. But if your criminal lawyer can successfully argue, using evidence, that the accountant’s opinion is flawed, and that $10,000 at most could be considered questionable, the prosecutor’s credibility before a jury can take a big hit.
The best practice that a successful federal criminal defense lawyer employs is to understand every federal criminal offense and how to fight it. That’s because these crimes are connected in one form or another: a defendant can be charged with conspiracy to commit one or more crimes, and then be charged with actually carrying the crime(s) out. Besides the above white collar federal crimes, some other crimes that a criminal lawyer can handle are:
To commit tax evasion and tax fraud, an individual or corporation will use illegal means to avoid paying taxes. This includes misrepresenting income to the IRS by inflating/overestimating deductions, underreporting income, concealing money in offshore accounts, or not filing an annual tax return altogether.
Anyone who bills to a healthcare benefit program (Medicare, Medicaid, commercial insurance carriers) and makes a false claim in the billing is committing healthcare fraud. This includes billing for services not provided, performing unnecessary services and then billing for them, and making false statements on benefit program contracts. In addition, paying or receiving kickbacks for patient referrals or self-referring patients to a company in which you have a financial interest constitutes healthcare fraud.
Embezzlement is not the same as common theft. Rather, a defendant was entrusted to manage or monitor someone else’s property or funds, was given access to the property/funds, then stole some or all of it for personal gain. In the white collar federal crimes arena, this usually involves pilfering from a company that engages in interstate commerce, such as banks, healthcare programs, or government entities.
The FBI’s 2020 Internet Crime Report shows nearly 800,000 complaints of suspected Internet crime — a 166% increase over the year before —and losses exceeding $4.2 billion. Although many federal Internet and computer crimes technically fall under wire fraud (i.e., identity theft, phishing), there are several other federal offenses that carry severe criminal penalties, including cyberstalking, hacking, child pornography, and sex trafficking.
When you’re facing federal charges, the best defense strategy is a passionate criminal attorney and their team in your corner. Someone who doesn’t just know the court system inside and out, but, as a former federal prosecutor, understands how the government’s attorneys work — and knows how to beat their arguments.
For more than 35 years, we’ve proven ourselves as the premier national law firm for fighting the Feds on large-scale criminal matters. Our top rated criminal defense lawyers have an aggressive and formidable presence in federal court, with a coast-to-coast track record of acquittals, dismissals, and not-guilty verdicts.
Our national offices are based in Detroit (Troy), Michigan; Miami and Sarasota, Florida; and Los Angeles/Southern California. Contact us today.
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