Friday, February 18, 2011

Real World Dynamics -- the Cheek Good Faith Belief Defense

In United States v. Mostler, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS (3d Cir. 2/11/11), an nonprecedential decision, the Court offers some real world dynamics on the presentation of this defense to the jury.

The defendant asserted the Cheek good faith belief defense. The Court of Appeals noted that, prior to embarking on a course of nonpayment of tax, the defendant did some "additional research" "largely conducted on the internet." The defendant quit paying his taxes . (The Court of Appeals decision talks in terms of nonpayment, but it is unclear whether the nonpayment resulted from (i) failure to report / file or (ii) filing returns without paying the taxes reported due or (iii) filing fraudulent returns failing to report the taxes due.) In any event, he was charged with four counts of tax evasion (apparently evasion of payment because of the courts other descriptions). His "sole defense" was that he had not willfully violated the law.

After a charge conference, the trial court gave the following instruction on the Cheek / willfulness defense:

The third element the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the defendant acted willfully. Willfully means a voluntary and intentional violation of a known legal duty. . . . Defendant's conduct was not willful if he acted through negligence or a mistake or accident or due to a good faith misunderstanding of the requirements of the law. A good faith belief is one that is honestly and genuinely held. A good faith misunderstanding of the law or a good faith belief that one is not violating the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or misunderstanding is objectively reasonable. A defendant's views about the validity of the tax statutes are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness and need not be considered by the jury. However, mere disagreement with the law or belief that the tax laws are unconstitutional or otherwise invalid does not constitute a good faith misunderstanding of the requirements of law. All persons have a duty to obey the law whether or not they agree with it. Any claim that the tax laws are invalid, unconstitutional, or inapplicable is incorrect as a matter of law.
After receiving this charge and the other charges and deliberating for a while, the jury sent a note asking" "Please provide more clarity regarding a good faith belief." The judge responded:

I think we have tried as best we could to articulate a good faith belief on Page 22. The lawyers argued and spent most of their time in their summations today discussing good faith or willfulness, which is obviously the related concept.
I think I'm going to ask you to go back and discuss further Page 22, and, if you feel that there's something more specific that you're seeking, please advise me but I think you're going to have to use your wisdom of 12 jurors to discuss and analyze what has been presented to you and bring to bear your thoughts and analysis just as has been set forth in the charge. You might want to reread the charge.

So, thank you very much and, if you would like to be more specific, you may be so. Thank you.
The jury convicted.

The Court of Appeals said:

Again, we find no error in the District Court's response. Given the extremely broad and vague question, we are not prepared to state that the District Court abused its discretion in refusing to provide additional extensive instructions on the background of the good faith defense. This is especially true given that Mostler contends that the instructions were already overly long and complicated. The District Court made clear that the issue of good faith was already covered in a particular part of the jury charge, and invited the jury to ask a more specific question if it still needed further clarification. This decision was well within its discretion.

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.