Thursday, November 24, 2016

Trial Court Rejects Ineffective Assistance Claims for Strategic Choices at Trial (11/24/16)

In Litwok v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162715  (ED NY 2016), here, the Court denied the convicted defendants petition for relief under 28 USC 2255, here, a form of federal habeas corpus relief after conviction. Litwok had been convicted for tax evasion on retrial after her first convictions for wire fraud and tax evasion were reversed.  (I wrote on the first convictions which were reversed Second Circuit Reverses and Vacates Convictions for Wire Fraud and Tax Evasion (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 5/1/12), here.)  The conviction on retrial for one count of tax evasion was subsequently affirmed on appeal.  United States v. Litwok, 611 F. App'x 12 (2d Cir. 2015), here.  I did not write on the later affirmance but will mention  some aspects of the affirmance in this blog on the § 2255 proceeding.

In the earlier blog on the reversal of the first convictions, I dealt with the issue of charging a defendant for tax evasion -- evasion of assessment -- where the taxpayer failed to file a tax return.  It is black letter law that a failure to file alone cannot support a prosecution and conviction for tax evasion; there must be some affirmative act of evasion.  The initial prosecution charged three years of tax evasion in a context of failure to file.  The Second Circuit held in the first appeal that, for two of the three charged years, the Government had not established the required affirmative act of evasion for tax evasion.  The Court reversed the third conviction also because of the improper joinder of the wire fraud charge.  On remand and retrial, the Government charged only the tax evasion count.  The defendant was convicted.  On appeal of that conviction, the Second Circuit in a nonprecedential order held in part as follows:

1. Litwok had waived any statute of limitations defense by not raising the issue below.

2. "Based on the evidence presented, a jury could have fairly credited Testaverde's testimony and concluded that Litwok willfully committed an affirmative act with the intent to avoid paying her taxes."

3.  "Litwok's ineffective assistance claims (failure to raise statute of limitations, failure to investigate perjured testimony and object to prosecutorial misconduct, failure to call a forensic accountant, failure to present exculpatory evidence, and failure to inquire as to whistleblower status of witnesses)" are more properly raised in a § 2255 proceeding.

4.  The record did not support Litwok's claim that the accountants testimonies were false.

5.  The record did not establish Litwok's claims of prosecutorial misconduct in referring in opening and closing arguments to allegedly perjured testimony of Government witnesses.

So, after the conviction on the second trial and while the second appeal was pending, Litwok filed the instance § 2255 proceeding.  The trial court finally reached and resolved the § 2255 proceeding by denying the claims and rejecting the request for certificate of appealability.

I recommend to readers reviewing the entire opinion.  I mention here only briefly the claims addressed with some context for claims I find particularly interesting:

1.  Failure to assert the statute of limitations Defense.
Here, petitioner's trial counsel submitted a declaration attesting that a statute of limitations argument "was not a bona fide issue or defense and there was no good faith factual basis for making such a motion." (Decl. of Robert A. Chapnick, ECF No. 16-2 ("Chapnick Decl.") at ¶ 2.) Under the deferential standard outlined above, the court must presume that counsel acted within the "wide range of reasonable professional assistance," Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689, in making that determination, and the applicable precedent indicates that a limitations defense would have been fruitless. "The law is well established that the statute of limitations for tax evasion runs from the day of the last act of evasion[, which] encompasses any act of concealment . . . ." United States v. Mui, 214 F. App'x 40, 47 (2d Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original) (and citation omitted). Petitioner was charged with tax evasion by superseding indictment dated March 19, 2003, and at trial, the government introduced acts of concealment dating to at least mid-1997, which falls within the limitations period. Those incidents include the March 1, 1997 retention of another accounting firm to replace Testaverde, a relationship that lasted for approximately two months before that accountant quit (T. at 248-50); and petitioner's April 15, 1997 submission of an extension request for the filing of her tax return (T. at 193). Had petitioner's trial attorney sought dismissal on limitations grounds, the government would have argued that those events or other post-March 19, 1997 conduct constituted acts of concealment sufficient to toll the commencement of the statutory period. Given that evidence of concealment, any motion to dismiss would have lacked merit, and counsel was not ineffective for failing to raise that argument. 
Accordingly, this branch of petitioner's ineffective counsel claim fails because she has not shown that her trial attorney was deficient for declining to make a motion that had no merit.
2.  Failure to challenge certain calculations made by Litwok's former accountant who testified as a Government witness.

3.  Failure to understand the Tax Code -- specifically, her counsel ""lacked a rudimentary understanding of the Tax Code for partnerships . . . ."

4.  Failure to Call a Forensic Accountant.  This related to certain testimony given by an accountant in an SEC investigation deposition where the forensic accountant testified that she had no taxable income for 1995.  The court concluded:
that counsel fairly assessed that the probative value of any testimony that Lackowitz might have given would have been outweighed by Lackowitz's contradictory assertions and the lack of admissible supporting evidence. Further, even if arguendo trial counsel erred, such error was not prejudicial because the government adduced sufficient evidence of petitioner's guilt, and a jury may have still convicted petitioner. See Graziano v. United States, No. 12-CV-738 (JFB), 2013 WL 298116, at *17 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2013).
5.  Failure to impeach

6.  Failure to Cross Examine as to Bias.

7.  Failure to Object to Prosecutorial Misconduct.

JAT Comment: Basically, Litwok's claims were as to strategic choices which are frequently made in the course of a trial.  Those strategic choices typically cannot be contested ex post facto without a very strong showing that (i) they were materially deficient and (ii) they affected the outcome of the case.  Some strategic choices work; some don't.  But that does not mean that the representation was ineffective.

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