Saturday, April 7, 2012

Cheek, Good Faith Defense and Conscious Avoidance (4/7/12)

In United States v. Maga, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 6867 (6th Cir. 2012), here, in an unpublished opinion, the Sixth Circuit rejected a defendant's attempt to raise a Cheek good faith issue.  The defendant argued that certain IRS codes related to his computer account and correspondence with the IRS led him to believe, in good faith, that he did not have to file income tax returns.  The jury with proper Cheek willfulness and good faith instructions found him guilty.  The defendant was dissatisfied and appealed.  The Court concluded "When viewed in a light most favorable to the government, the record permits a factfinder to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Maga actually knew about his legal duty to file and only pretended to rely on an idiosyncratic reading of the IRS letter and documents."  The Court further concluded:
Maga responds that even unreasonable beliefs may negate the "willfulness" element, if held in good faith. See Cheek, 498 U.S. at 203. But a reasonable jury could also conclude that, the more "incredible" one's claimed belief, the less likely that one actually holds such a belief in good faith. See id. at 203-04 ("Of course, the more unreasonable the asserted beliefs or misunderstandings are, the more likely the jury will consider them to be nothing more than simple disagreement with known legal duties imposed by the tax laws and will find that the Government has carried its burden of proving knowledge."). Maga exerted every effort to verify that MFR-01 meant "1040 not required," yet made no effort to double-check his convenient inference of complete tax exemption. Given Maga's attitudes toward taxes, his familiarity with the IRS letter and manual, the "plainly incredible" nature of his interpretation, and the absence of any attempt to verify the accuracy of his risky interpretation, a factfinder could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Maga willfully disregarded his known duty to file returns. And because tax evasion has different elements than the crime of failure to file tax returns, his acquittal on the evasion charge fails to undermine our confidence in the reasonableness of his conviction for not filing. We therefore affirm the district court's denial of a motion for acquittal.
As discussed, absence of Cheek good faith and conscious avoidance can be pretty close.  The standard for conviction of a tax crime is still Cheek willfulness -- voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.  If the jury believes that the defendant had a good faith belief that there was no legal duty, Cheek willfulness is not present.  In Maga, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could and apparently did not believe the good faith defense and, moreover, did believe that he intended to violate a known legal duty.

Another way of looking at the facts is that Maga cobbled together circumstances, like a legal argument, that supported his claim that he had no such duty and thereby consciously avoided knowledge of the legal duty.  As noted in earlier conscious avoidance discussions on this blog, I have questioned whether the conscious avoidance is the same as intentional violation of a known legal duty, which is the Cheek willfulness mandate.  It is true that the Courts, including the Supreme Court, seem to apply the conscious avoidance notion to supply willfulness in some legal contexts, but the Supreme Court has yet to speak as to its application in a criminal case in a Cheek tax context.  Of course, where a defendant consciously avoids knowledge as did Maga in this case, he does not have a good faith belief that he is not require to file.  But, again, the test is voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty, and all lack of good faith and conscious avoidance should do is to focus the jury back on the question of whether the evidence establishes that the defendant intended to violate a known legal duty.  Lack of good faith and conscious avoidance is not a substitute for finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to violate a known legal duty.  Lack of good faith and conscious avoidance are certainly evidence which, considered with all of the other facts, that could permit a jury to determine that the defendant intended to violate a known legal duty.

1 comment:

  1. Jack,

    The 6th Circuit's decision is very well reasoned and can be used as a model by both defense and prosecuting attorneys.

    Thank you for your excellent commentary!


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