Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Sixth Circuit Holds Harmless Error to Not Give Correct Jury Instruction on Evasion Statute of Limitations (8/31/22)

In United States v. Pieron (6th Cir. 8/30/22), Unpublished, CA 6 here and GS here [to come]. the Court affirmed Pieron’s tax evasion conviction. Although nonprecedential, I think the opinion offers a lesson for practitioners. I, therefore, report on what the Court described (Slip Op. 4) as “Pieron’s more serious argument” that the trial court failed to give a “correctly stated” jury instruction that the jury was required to find an affirmative act of evasion in the six-year limitations period.

The evidence at trial included some acts that could permit the jury to find an affirmative act of evasion. Some of those acts were outside the six-year period; some were within the six-year period. Pieron argued that the trial judge, through the correctly stated proposed instruction, should have focused the jury on the requirement that the jury find an affirmative act in the limitations period. The trial judge refused the correct instruction. The conviction of evasion means that the jury found at least one affirmative act of evasion, but the absence of the correct instruction means that there is no way to determine if the jury found at least one act of evasion in the limitations period. The Sixth Circuit found the error harmless, citing evidence of acts in the record that could have been persuasive to the jury had the trial court properly instructed the jury.

The Fifth Circuit’s analysis is short, one paragraph spanning parts of two pages (Slip Op. 4-5), so I just quote it in its entirety:

            That same conclusion defeats Pieron’s more serious argument, which is that the district court should have instructed the jury that it could convict Pieron only if it found that he committed an evasive act within the five-year limitations period, meaning after January 9, 2012. Most of the actions alleged in the government’s Bill of Particulars took place before that date; Pieron’s proposed instruction correctly stated that, “[t]o be guilty of the crime alleged, the defendant must have committed an affirmative act of tax evasion after January 9, 2012”; and that instruction likely would have focused both the jury’s attention and the parties’ presentations at trial. But we conclude that any error as to the district court’s failure to give the instruction was harmless. See generally Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 414 (2010); Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(a). In closing arguments, the government emphasized the 433-F forms that Pieron filed in 2012 and 2014. Those forms, as discussed above, were patently misleading; and Pieron made little effort to persuade the jury otherwise during trial and particularly during his closing argument. True, in closing arguments, the government also emphasized several instances of evasive conduct before January 9, 2012. But we see no reason to think that the jury might have overlooked his 2012 and 2014 433-F forms or otherwise found them non-evasive. Moreover, in the context of the trial record as a whole, the jury had every reason to think that Pieron’s August 2012 Foreign Bank Account Report (in which he claimed a $250,000 maximum balance for a Swiss account that held $750,000 during the relevant year) was evasive as well. The government has shown by a preponderance of evidence that the district court’s decision not to give Pieron’s proposed instruction neither affected nor “substantially swayed” the verdict. See United States v. Kettles, 970 F.3d 637, 643 (6th Cir. 2020). The omission of that instruction therefore does not entitle Pieron to a new trial.

By way of contrast, in United States v. Pursley, 22 F.4th 586 (5th Cir. 1/13/22), CA5 here and GS here, the Fifth Circuit held it was reversible error not to give a proper statute of limitations instruction.  See 5th Circuit Reverses Conviction to Have Court Calculate the Foreign Evidence Request Final Action for Statute of Limitations Suspension and, Properly Instructed, Have Jury Determine Whether Criminal Act Occurred in Statute of Limitations as Suspended (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 1/13/22), here (focusing principally on the suspension of the statute under 18 USC 3292).

The outcomes in the two cases appear irreconcilable. Of course, Pursley, a published opinion, is not binding precedent in the Sixth Circuit deciding Pieron, but it is nonbinding precedent to the extent persuasive. I understand that Pieron did assert Pursley in the briefing, so it is surprising that the Sixth Circuit did not cite the case or attempt to distinguish Pursley.

The lesson is for defense attorneys to press hard in appropriate cases for proper instructions, shape the evidence at trial (if possible), and then make proper arguments about the statute of limitations.  With a proper instruction, defense counsel might also request a special interrogatory to the jury on finding an act of evasion in the statute.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please make sure that your comment is relevant to the blog entry. For those regular commenters on the blog who otherwise do not want to identify by name, readers would find it helpful if you would choose a unique anonymous indentifier other than just Anonymous. This will help readers identify other comments from a trusted source, so to speak.