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Archive for May, 2012

Michael Gerson’s column on Vice President Biden this evening is a gem. It opens:

What to make of Vice President Biden? Sometimes he is gaffe-prone comic relief. Sometimes he is the possessor of the worst geopolitical judgment in Washington — as when he opposed the Osama bin Laden raid or advocated the partition of Iraq. And sometimes he seems to be the last genuine human being in American politics.

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The mastermind of a major mortgage fraud conspiracy in North Carolina was able to shed his money laundering convictions with a merger argument. In United States v. Cloud, the Fourth Circuit held today that money laundering convictions premised on the payment of money to third parties simply to cover essential operating expenses for the underlying fraud merged into the underlying fraud and could not be punished under a since-amended federal money laundering statute. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Davis joined.

This decision in Cloud rests on the Fourth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Halstead, 634 F.3d 270 (4th Cir. 2011). That case sets forth Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 4-1-4 decision in United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008).

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Four owners of a trucking company sold the business’s sole remaining asset–a warehouse–and retired. After selling the warehouse, the businessmen sold their company stock to an investment company that promised to pay the company’s taxes. The investment company never did pay those taxes, and the IRS came after the former owners of the trucking company for the tax bill, which was in the neighborhood of $880,000. The IRS said the transaction with the investment company was a tax shelter scam, but the Tax Court sided with the former owners of the trucking company. A split panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court in Starnes v. Commissioner, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Wynn wrote a dissenting opinion.

Depending on one’s view of the facts, either (a) the former owners of the trucking company were victims of unscrupulous cheats, persecuted by an overeager federal government out to take away their hard-earned retirement money, or (b) they pulled a fast one on the federal government, saving themselves over $100,000 each in taxes. Depending on one’s view of the law, either (a) the government should have stayed its hand because it misunderstood North Carolina law, or (b) the government was denied the benefit of federal law elevating substance over form in evaluating the tax consequences of transactions like the one at issue here.

The first few paragraphs of Judge Wynn’s dissent summarize his view of the case:

This case involves a straightforward transaction made complicated so as to facilitate the fraudulent avoidance of a tax liability. Simply put, the petitioners, former shareholders of Tarcon, reduced the sole asset of Tarcon to cash by selling that asset, a warehouse, for $3,180,000. After that October 30, 2003 sale, Tarcon had $3,091,955 in its bank account and no  tangible assets. As a result of the warehouse sale, Tarcon incurred a federal tax liability of $733,699 and a North Carolina tax liability of $147,931, for a total of $881,628. If the story had ended there, the four former shareholders, each of whom owned 25 percent of Tarcon, would have completed the liquidation of Tarcon by paying those tax liabilities and dividing the remaining sum, allowing each to receive a distribution of approximately $552,582.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, MidCoast entered with a fraudulent scheme that would allow the former shareholders to avoid paying their $881,628 tax liability. Under its proposal, MidCoast would pay the former shareholders $2,621,136 for their Tarcon stock and legal fees; in return, Tarcon would transfer its sole asset, roughly $3.1 million in cash, to MidCoast. Why, though, would the shareholders turn over Tarcon’s $3.1 million to MidCoast and receive only $2.6 million in return?

The answer is evident when Tarcon’s outstanding tax liabilities of $881,627 are factored into the equation. Indeed, it then becomes clear that the former shareholders actually negotiated to be paid $2.6 million in cash—for cash that in reality totaled only $2,210,425, resulting in a windfall of $410,711. That windfall was, in fact, a cut from Tarcon’s $881,627 tax liability, transferred to MidCoast when it purchased the former shareholders’ stock, and which it undoubtedly was scheming to avoid under the guise of offering an “asset recovery premium.” While I recognize the intricacies of MidCoast’s subsequent actions to avoid paying the full liability of $881,627, this transaction cannot escape its ultimately simple  label: a transparent scam designed by the parties to fraudulently evade paying taxes. Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

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From a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, written in response to Roane’s transmission of his Hampden essays published in the Richmond Enquirer:

In denying the right they usurp of exclusively explaining the constitution, I go further than you do, if I understand rightly your quotation from the Federalist, of an opinion that “the judiciary is the last resort in relation to the other departments of the government, but not in relation to the rights of the parties to the compact under which the judiciary is derived.” If this opinion be sound, then indeed is our constitution a complete felo de se. For intending to establish three departments, co-ordinate and independent, that they might check and balance one another, it has given, according to this opinion, to one of them alone, the right to prescribe rules for the government of the others, and to that one too, which is unelected by, and independent of the nation. For experience has already shown that the impeachment it has provided is not even a scarecrow; that such opinions as the one you combat, sent cautiously out, as you observe also, by detachment, not belonging to the case often, but sought for out of it, as if to rally the public opinion beforehand to their views, and to indicate the line they are to walk in, have been so quietly passed over as never to have excited animadversion, even in a speech of any one of the body entrusted with impeachment. The constitution, on this hypothesis, is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist, and shape into any form they please. It should be remembered, as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only, at first, while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice, as fast as that relaxes. Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law. My construction of the constitution is very different from that you quote. It is that each department is truly independent of the others, and has an equal right to decide for itself what is the meaning of the constitution in the cases submitted to its action; and especially, where it is to act ultimately and without appeal. I will explain myself by examples, which, having occurred while I was in office, are better known to me, and the principles which governed them.

Jefferson then provides three examples illustrating independent executive judgment about a legal question: his pardon of individuals convicted under the sedition act; his decision to withhold Marbury’s commission; and his refusal to submit a treaty to the Senate for its consideration.

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Federal law authorizes immigration authorities to detain a criminal alien without a bond hearing “when the alien is released” from some other custody, such as state imprisonment. See 8 U.S.C. 1226(c)(1). The Board of Immigration Appeals has held that this statute authorizes mandatory detention even if the immigration authorities arrest and detain the individual well after his state custody has ended. The Fourth Circuit held today in Hosh v. Lucero that the BIA’s determination was entitled to Chevron deference and that the immigration-law version of the rule of lenity did not require an alternative outcome. Senior Judge Moon (WDVA) wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Keenan and Judge Floyd concurred.

Several district courts have been on both sides of the issue resolved by the Fourth Circuit in this case, although the Fourth Circuit’s decision appears to be the first circuit-level decision on this issue.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued published opinions in piracy prosecutions arising out of foiled attacks on the U.S.S. Ashland and the U.S.S. Nicholas. In both, the federal government won and the pirates lost.

The principal opinion, United States v. Dire, affirms the convictions and life-plus sentences of the Somali defendants against several challenges, including the claim “that their fleeting and fruitless strike on the Nicholas did not, as a matter of law, amount to a § 1651 piracy offense.” Judge King wrote the opinion for the Court, in which Judge Davis and Judge Keenan joined.

The other opinion, United States v. Said, vacates the dismissal of the § 1651 piracy count in the prosecution arising out of the attack on the U.S.S. Ashland. Judge King wrote the opinion for the Court, in which Judge Davis and Judge Keenan joined.

The Dire decision is a ringing endorsement of the thorough analysis provided by Judge Mark Davis (EDVA) earlier in the case. See United States v. Hasan, 747 F. Supp. 2d 599 (EDVA 2010). The Fourth Circuit’s opinion states: “Simply put, we agree with the conception of the law outlined by the court below. Indeed, we have carefully considered the defendants’ appellate contentions–endorsed by the amicus curiae brief submitted on their behalf [filed by counsel for the Said defendants]–yet remain convinced of the correctness of the trial court’s analysis.”

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The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a First Amendment challenge to Arlington, Virginia’s prohibition of a doggy daycare’s mural near the Shirlington Dog Park. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion for the Court in Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, which was joined in by Judge Duncan and Judge Keenan. The challenger was represented by the Institute for Justice, which has a case page with background and more information, together with a response to today’s decision.

My preliminary reaction is that the opinion’s First Amendment analysis is overly deferential to the government. In assessing whether the challenged sign ordinance is content-based or content-neutral, the opinion follows the regrettable path of focusing almost exclusively on whether the ordinance was enacted because of disagreement with the message conveyed. The most underdeveloped part of the opinion, however, is its application of intermediate scrutiny, particularly the narrow tailoring prong. The county asserted that its ordinance serves two interests: promoting traffic safety and enhancing the County’s aesthetics. The county’s enforcement of its ordinance with respect to the challenged mural raises serious questions about how the ordinance is “narrowly tailored” to serve these interests, questions that the opinion simply does not address. The county told Wag More Dogs that the mural would not run afoul of the ordinance if (1) it depicted anything other than pictures relating to the doggy daycare business, or (2) it included the phrase “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area.” Given the conceded lawfulness of hypothetical alternative murals that comply with either (1) or (2), it is hard to see how the ordinance is tailored at all, much less narrowly tailored, to the promotion of traffic safety or the enhancement of the County’s aesthetics. Instead of examining this issue, however, the opinion conclusorily asserts that the ordinance’s sign and location restrictions do no more than eliminate the exact source of the evil it sought to remedy.

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