June 2012 Archives

June 29, 2012

Court Appointed Defense Lawyers Take Big Pay Cut

Anyone charged with a felony is entitled to be represented by a defense lawyer. Public Defender's Offices were created for that reason. However, when conflicts of interest arise in cases where multiple defendants are charged with criminal offenses, attorneys from the public defender's office can only represent one client. The question arises, who is going to represent the other clients who are indigent and cannot afford to retain private counsel? The State of Florida approximately five years ago created the Office of Regional Counsel. The creation of this office effectively did away with what used to be called "the wheel". "The wheel" consisted of a list of private Miami criminal defense lawyers that would be appointed cases that the public defender's office could not handle due to conflicts of interest. Budgetary constraints caused the Florida legislature to abandon the wheel and form the Offices of Regional Counsel.

"The wheel" in its past form no longer exists, but the courts still appoints cases in which both the public defender's offices and regional counsel both have conflicts of interest. The State of Florida has cut the rates for which the private lawyers can now bill the state to the extent that defendants are not receiving adequate representation. The fees are so paltry that defense lawyers who accept court appointed cases cannot effectively represent indigent defendants. A recent rule change has capped the fees to an even greater extent. It is understandable that the State of Florida needed to curb the growing expenses of legal fees, but not to the extent that the lawyers are not effectively representing their clients. For the fees being paid, the lawyers representing indigent clients cannot complete effective discovery in the cases prior to their resolution.

Attorneys around the community are making a stink that indigent clients cannot receive effective representation with the fees being they are being paid. One of the cornerstones of the Constitution provides that every defendant is entitled to effective legal representation. Effective representation means quality representation by qualified lawyers. Quality lawyers cannot afford to handles these cases for amount of time and effort to effectively defend them. If a lawyer decides to participate in the court-appointment process, economics dictates that the requisite amount of time required to provide a solid defense cannot be put into a case, thereby leading to ineffective assistance of counsel. Dozens and dozens of hours of work are put into a case before it is resolved. The discovery process, especially depositions, take hours of preparation and planning along with the time it takes to properly question witnesses.

The new rule change calls the pool of lawyers the "Limited Registry". The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL) is challenging the new procedure for appointing lawyers to represent indigent clients. Many of the attorneys who used to represent clients on "the wheel" are no longer taking these cases because they can simply no longer afford to do so. Prior to the recent change, defense attorneys could bill a case for a flat fee, or by the hour if the cases were more complex and took significant time. All the cases are now paid by way of flat fee which cannot properly compensate those defending the cases. The flat fees vary depending on the severity of the offense. For example, an armed robbery case will pay more than a drug sale or drug possession case. Anyway you slice it, more and more attorneys will choose not to participate in the new program leaving a void in the number of lawyers ready, willing and able to defend indigent clients.

New Fee Rules Rile South Florida Defense Lawyers, Miami Herald.com, June 23, 2012.

June 21, 2012

Eight Arrests Made for Mortgage Fraud

Local residents were indicted and arrested for their involvement in a multi-million dollar mortgage fraud scheme that lasted almost 5 years. The focus of the investigation involved a condominium located in the Miami-Brickell area. According to the indictment, the individuals charged in federal court were part of a scheme that bilked lending institutions out of $5.7 million. The case will be prosecuted in Miami, Florida with the defendants represented by privately retained criminal attorneys or lawyers from the federal public defender's office. While mortgage fraud is difficult to perpetrate under the current banking standards, federal and state prosecutors are trying to clean up the mess that occurred at the end of the last decade.

The defendants charged in the case are facing charges of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering. Strawbuyers, a real estate attorney, a real estate broker and a mortgage broker were among those arrested. A title agent allegedly was also involved in the scheme and was charged separately by information. Like her co-defendants she is also charged with mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering. Some would ask why she is charged separately by information rather than being included in the indictment with the rest of her alleged co-conspirators. Often times, cooperating witnesses will not be included in the indictment as they are expected to enter a guilty plea down the road. This is especially the case, when the cooperation began prior to the indictment being handed down by the grand jury.

Another defendant has already entered a guilty plea to charges including conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud. The allegations suggest that this defendant provided false information to banks to acquire loans and received kickbacks for his involvement in the criminal enterprise. He received 46 months in prison at his sentencing hearing. Based on the loss alleged in the indictment, this sentence indicates that this defendant has agreed to cooperate with federal investigations and prosecutors with other investigations and with the offenses for which he was charged.

According to court records, the mortgage fraud scheme used straw buyers to purchase condominium units in the downtown Brickell area. Straw buyers names were used to secure loans supported by falsified financial documents. The false information was used to secure loans that exceeded the sales price of the units. Two sets of loan documents we used. The first set of documents that reflected the corrects sales price were submitted to the sellers, while a second set of inflated loan documents with the inflated price were presented to the lending institutions. The difference in the monies were taken and divided among the co-conspirators. This scheme is commonly referred to as "double hudding" and is one of the more commonplace types of mortgage fraud. While mortgage fraud is difficult to achieve under the current security standards of the banks, arrests are still being made for mortgage fraud that contributed to the housing collapse in 2008 and 2009.

Eight Miami-Dade Residents Charged in Multi-Million Dollar Mortgage Fraud Scheme, Palm Beach Post.com, June 20, 2012.

June 11, 2012

Fourteen Indicted on Identity Theft Charges

Fourteen local individuals were indicted in federal court for their involvement in a bank fraud scheme. Both men and women were indicted, but only 13 of the 14 have been arrested to date. The group is charged with being involved in an organized scheme to defraud several Bank of America customers. The defendants will appear before a magistrate with their perspective defense lawyers to determine whether each is entitled to a bond or whether the government is going to seek pre-trial detention. If the government seeks pre-trial detention, the hearing will be set within 48 hours. The government will have the burden of proving the defendant is linked to the crime and that the defendant is a danger to the community or a risk of flight. If the government can meet their burden, the magistrate can hold a defendant without a bond until the trial and/or sentencing occurs.

The alleged scheme was responsible for taking in excess of $100,000 from unsuspecting bank customers between November 2009 and June 2010. According to the United States Attorney's Office, one of the defendants was the ringleader of the operation. He is accused of stealing identities of bank customers, allowing other perpetrators to gain access to the accounts. The ringleader, Ibrahin Elias, was able to acquire the personal information of Bank of America customers, such as, names, birth-dates and social security numbers. Elias purportedly took the personal information and impersonated bank customers. Once the customers accounts were compromised, he ordered checks which were used to withdraw money out of the accounts. Once Elias had control of the accounts, he would transfer funds to accounts belonging to the other co-defendants. He is charged with several counts of bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.

The other defendants charged in the indictment are charged with bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. A couple of the defendants are accused of receiving stolen funds and recruiting others to participate in the fraud. Others are simply accused of receiving stolen funds and returning the proceeds to others charged in the indictment. They received commissions for transferring the stolen money. According to court documents, each of the amounts stolen from individuals was less than $10,000 which means that were at least 10 victims involved in the crime.

Each of the defendants charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and bank fraud are facing up to 30 years in prison. Elias is also facing two-year minimum mandatory sentences for aggravated identity theft for each victim who had his or her identity stolen. The defendant's sentencing guidelines will determine what each individual is facing in terms of prison time. Those who cooperate with the federal investigators and prosecutors will receive the lightest sentences. Those of the defendants that choose not to cooperate with the feds will face sentences determined mostly by the amount of loss. Defendants involved in creating and managing the scheme will face more time as they will have their guidelines increased by several levels.

Arrests Made in Thefts from Online Bank Accounts, Miami Herald.com, June 10, 2012.

June 6, 2012

Smuggling Arrests Made in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico's International Airport was once again the scene for a large-scale drug trafficking bust. Thirty-three people were arrested for their alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar drug smuggling and importation ring. Three other individuals were arrested at Miami International Airport and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Investigators believe that the cocaine and heroine trafficking operations were a joint effort between two Puerto Rican drug trafficking organizations. The case will most likely be prosecuted in Puerto Rico or Miami, with criminal lawyers from either venue prosecuting and defending the case. The Puerto Rico airport has been a main hub for the importation and exportation of controlled substances for years.

According to the DEA, those arrested for heroine and cocaine trafficking are responsible for the importation of thousands of pounds of the illegal substances into Miami, Florida and Newark, New Jersey from 1999 to 2009. As a result of the investigation, 45 arrest warrants were issued by the federal government. Twelve of the warrants targeted former and current employees of American Airlines. Multiple warrants also involved multiple employees of Ground Motive Dependable, a company contracted by the airport to transfer, load and unload baggage. Other people sought via arrests warrants are an employee of Cape Air and a government employee working for the port authority.

The drug trafficking ring is alleged to have operated with airport or airline employees smuggling drugs into the airport in their bags or privately owned vehicles. Once the drugs passed through security, the illegal substances were transferred to other employees that would load the contraband onto aircraft bound for the United States. The current arrests for trafficking stem from an operation that began in 2009 that led to the arrests of several American Airlines employees. In 2010, several employees of Ground Motive Dependable were also arrested as part of the same investigation. The information that led to the new arrest warrants probably came from information provided by defendants arrested in the 2009 and 2010 operations.

According to federal authorities, Puerto Rico has been a hub for narcotics trafficking for a long time. With that, Puerto Rican law enforcement is seeking more federal funding to combat the problem. Approximately 70% of the narcotics that enter Puerto Rico are headed for the continental United States. According to records kept by the feds, the size of cocaine shipments intercepted in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have by increasing year over year. Last year, 10,800 pounds of cocaine was intercepted while 8,200 pounds have already been seized this year. Puerto Rico's police chief has asked for additional funding claiming that an increased budget should make it easier to catch drug traffickers.

DEA Makes Smuggling Arrests in Puerto Rico, Miami Herald.com, June 6, 2012.