Monday, August 27, 2018

Convictions Affirmed in Prosecution that Took Down Philadelphia Traffic Court

In a decision resolving six consolidated appeals beginning with United States v. William Hird, No. 14-4754, the Court revisits the venerable question of what constitutes a scheme to obtain “money or property” within the meaning of the mail and wire fraud statutes at 18 U.S.C. § § 1341 and 1343. Holding a governmental entity’s lawful entitlement to collect fines and costs for traffic violations to qualify as “property” under the fraud statutes, the Court affirms.

The widely publicized prosecution began in 2013 with the indictment of five sitting and former judges of the Philadelphia Traffic Court, along with other defendants, for fixing tickets on the part of favored individuals. Several judges were acquitted of all fraud counts at trial, but two defendants pleaded guilty after preserving their right to appeal a denial of their motion to dismiss these counts as failing to state an offense. Affirming the motion's denial, the Third Circuit canvasses the line of precedent establishing that mail fraud and wire fraud are limited in scope to the protection of property rights. The Court ultimately foregrounds Pasquantino v. United States, 544 U.S. 349 (2005), which held that a scheme to evade import taxes on liquor smuggled into Canada supported conviction of federal wire fraud. Finding unrealized fines for traffic violations to be analogous to evaded taxes, the Third Circuit concludes that the indictment sufficiently charged a scheme to defraud the City of Philadelphia and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of property within the cognizance of §§ 1341 and 1343. The fact that the favored individuals were never found guilty of a traffic violation did not foreclose prosecution because the very object of the scheme was to obviate judgments that would have imposed fines and costs.

The opinion also reviews the law governing perjury in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1623, the only offense of which three of the traffic judges were found guilty, based on testimony they had given before a grand jury. On appeal, they contended the evidence was insufficient because the questions asked of them were fatally vague or their answers were literally true. Rejecting these arguments, the Court reaffirms that “precise questioning is imperative as a predicate for the offense of perjury,” but adds that on sufficiency challenges, “[o]ur review … is focused on glaring instances of vagueness or double-speak by the examiner” that “would mislead or confuse a witness into making a response that later becomes the basis of a perjury conviction.”

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