May 26, 2010

Former Cop Arrested for Marijuana Trafficking

There is still no end to the marijuana trafficking arrests being made in South Florida. Narcotics units continue to scour the county looking for residences being used as marijuana grow houses. This time narcotics detectives nabbed a former Miami Beach police officer. As with most grow house busts, the detectives usually begin an investigation into a grow house through an anonymous tip or crime stoppers tip. Most of the tips come from neighbors or other competing marijuana growers. Police arrested Adam Tavss after executing a search warrant. Upon a search of the residence, detectives located 47 plants with an estimated street value of $50,000. The detectives shut down the hydroponic garden and seized the plants.

In a typical grow house bust, once the plants have been seized, they are taken to the Miami-Dade County crime lab for weighing and testing. When the lab weighs the marijuana, the technicians weigh the entire plant including the leaves, branches, trunk and roots. The weight is the most important issue because any weight greater than 25 pounds will constitute marijuana trafficking. There are three levels of marijuana trafficking. The first level carries a three year minimum mandatory and requires 25 pounds of marijuana or 300 plants. The second level carries a 7 year minimum mandatory and requires 2,000 to 10,000 pounds or 2,000 plants. The third level carries a 15 year minimum mandatory sentence and requires in excess of 10,000 pounds or 10,000 plants. The majority of grow house cases are of the 3 year minimum mandatory kind. In many cases, the marijuana weigh barely exceeds the 25 pound requirement. Qualified and experienced Miami criminal defense lawyers always recommend hiring an expert to re-weigh the plants. An expert routinely requires a $1,000 retainer to go to the lab and re-weigh the evidence. This strategy can also be used to defend cocaine trafficking cases.

In the case involving the Miami Beach cop, the narcotics detectives obtained a search warrant. In the majority of cases, the detectives try to gain entry using other means other than obtaining a warrant because getting a warrant requires a lot of time and effort. On many occasions, the detectives just walk up to the door of the residence which is acting as a grow house and attempt to get a consent to search from the property owner. Always remember, a home owner can refuse to allow law enforcement into their house. The home owner can even refuse to open the door. The best advice is not to open the door because opening the door may give the cops enough probable cause to obtain a warrant if they see or smell marijuana.

The only way to prevent law enforcement officers from approaching and knocking on a front door is by taking certain steps. First, the house must be surrounded by a fence. It is suggested that all of the gates be padlocked. All a police officer has to say is that a gate was left open and that may dissipate the expectation of privacy expected by the homeowner. Another way to establish that the homeowners intent to maintain privacy is to place the mailbox on the fence rather than on the front door. By instituting these measures, any entry without a warrant will be deemed unconstitutional by the court and the evidence will be suppressed. Anyone operating a grow house should follow this protocol to prevent uninvited intrusions by law enforcement.

Ex-Cop Faces Charges After Grow House Found, CBS4.com, May 26, 2010.

May 24, 2010

Drug Trafficking Extraditions from Mexico Continue

The war on drugs continues to focus on the border between Mexico and the United States. Mexico appears to be cooperating with the federal government through numerous extraditions for defendants charged with cocaine trafficking and marijuana trafficking. Last year Mexico executed 107 extraditions of purported criminals and the Justice Department expects that number to increase in 2010. More than a dozen defendants charged with drug trafficking have been convicted in federal over the past two years. Charges have been brought in cities such as Miami, Houston, Loa Angeles and Chicago. The goal of the large number of extraditions was to curtail the inflow of drugs into the United States and curb Mexico's ongoing problem with drug related violence.

While most applaud Mexico's efforts, the increased number of extraditions have led to an increase in violent crimes as drug cartels are engaging in battles over turf. Some experts say that the rise in violent crimes is a direct result of Mexico's efforts to ship defendants to the United States to stand trial. The violent crime syndicates continue control the border through violence and intimidation. As the ringleaders are removed, the battle for control of the cartels and their territories are waged by those who to seek control of the organizations.

Until recently, Mexico did not assist the United States by extraditing these dangerous criminals. Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderon and President Obama have worked closely to change the policies. In fact, Calderon, in an effort to gain office, engaged in a campaign that included anti-drug trafficking rhetoric in an effort to get elected. He has fulfilled his promise to use the Mexican military to battle the drug trafficking cartels that operate along the border. While the federal government and Department of Justice applaud Mexico's efforts, they belief that the extradition policy has failed to break up the drug trafficking rings and reduce the amount of violence along the border.

Mexico's plan to fight the drug cartels is modeled after the plan instituted by the Columbian government. Despite the success of Columbia's anti-drug trafficking plan, thousands of kilos of cocaine still find their way onto American soil. An example of Mexico's efforts can be seen in the recent extradition to New York of a former Mexican governor. He was indicted in federal court on numerous counts of money laundering and drug trafficking. Court documents revealed that Mario Ernest Villanueva Madrid allegedly accepted millions of dollars for protecting the Juarez cartel which is responsible for trafficking in excess of 200 kilos of cocaine into the United States.

Despite the efforts of our and foreign governments, the cocaine trafficking cases filed in state and federal court do not appear to be dissipating. Miami criminal attorneys have defended large number of drug trafficking cases since the 1980's and will continue to represent clients charged with these offenses well into the future. While it is difficult to fight extraditions from foreign countries, the governments sending defendants to the United States from prosecution must follow certain procedures. Seek advice from a qualified criminal defense law firm regarding extraditions from any foreign country.

U.S. Applauds Record Extraditions from Mexico, but Drug War Violence Continues, The Washington Post, May 22, 2010.

May 20, 2010

Police Officer Charged with Robbery

Every now and again a police officer commits a crimes which sheds light on what some law enforcement officers are capable of doing. This story of police misconduct boggles the mind. As a Miami criminal lawyer, it is cases like these that makes a client's version of events all the more credible. During consultations regarding criminal cases, clients sometimes give the most unbelievable stories. While sometimes the version of events seem preposterous, it is police officers like John Francisco Villar, that make defending client's rights our firms top priority. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office is going to charge Villar for his involvement in a robbery that took place on the Palmetto Expressway.

On May 18, 2010, the police arrested Officer Villar, his cousin and man who makes his living running an online gambling website. The arrest warrant alleges that Leonardo Lastre owned and operated the website. The victim owed $131,000 from gambling winnings picked up the cash from Lastre. Soon after picking up the winnings, the defendant, along with his cousin, traveling in an unmarked police vehicle stopped the victim on the Palmetto. The defendant was wearing plain clothes, a badge, and a bulletproof vest. Villar's co-defendant was also present wearing a bullet proof vest and a stun gun. The second co-defendant was later identified as Villar's cousin, Fausto Villar.

Villar allegedly pulled the victim over, asked for his driver's license and whether there was any contraband in the vehicle. Villar specifically asked about the contents of the bag containing the money. Fausto took the bag, and John told the victim to wait for a narcotics K-9 to arrive to conduct a cocaine trafficking investigation. The defendants fled the scene in the unmarked police vehicle, only to be pulled over by a highway patrol officer. Prior to being pulled over, Fausto fled the vehicle with the money. The victim was able to identify both defendants. The police officer was from the Northside Department and has been relieved of duty with pay. Lastre was linked to the robbery through telephone records. He even appeared at the scene of the robbery telling the victim that was sorry for what had happened.

The Villar brothers and Lastre were arrested for armed robbery, armed burglary, and conspiracy to commit armed burglary. Fausto was also charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer. All three defendants appeared at their bond hearing. Despite arguments from their criminal lawyers, the bond hearing judge held them without bond. Armed robbery, armed burglary and burglary with an assault and/or battery are offenses that are punishable up to life in prison. As such, defendants are held without a bond, unless the prosecution agrees to a bond or the defendant's appear at an Arthur hearing and the judge sets a bond. Based on the severity of the charges and the media attention focused on the case, the prosecution is unlikely to grant a request for bond. The Villars have no prior criminal record, so the right judge might release them on a high bond and house arrest with a monitor or bracelet.

Despite the fact that Laster was not present at the time of the robbery, he is being charged as a conspirator and principle to the offenses. A principle need not be present when the crime is committed or attempted, but only that the defendant have the conscious intent that the crime be committed and made or promised payment in exchange for committing the offense. It is likely he would receive the most lenient sentence as he was not involved at the scene of the crime.

Miami-Dade Cop Charge in $131,000 Gambling Rip-off, The Miami Herald, May 19, 2010.

May 19, 2010

Mortgage Fraud Still on the Rise

Despite the efforts of the federal government including the Mortgage Fraud Task Force, incidents of mortgage fraud/real estate fraud continue to climb. New regulations and stricter lending policies are still unable to curtail the illegal activity. According to a recent report, reported incidents of mortgage fraud climbed 7% in 2009, however, the number are down from a 28% increase in 2008. Apparently, the money and man hours being thrown at the problem are beginning to pay dividends for the federal government. For the past several years Miami criminal defense lawyers have been representing clients in both state and federal court. The office of the United States Attorney prosecutes the cases in federal court, while the majority of state prosecutions are handles by the statewide prosecutor's office. The local state attorneys' office do not handle many of the cases because the majority of jurisdictions do not have units set up with the requisite training to prosecute these complicated offenses.

The federal government is proclaiming that the slower increase in cases of mortgage fraud is attributable to better reporting and more safeguards to protect the industry. Lending institutions have had a lot to do with fixing the problem by requiring substantial down payments, credit checks, better income verification. The federal government has also assisted in curbing the problem by creating investigative teams such as the Mortgage Fraud Task Force. Many reforms are underway or have already been put in place to fight mortgage fraud. Information sharing and reporting systems are being used to correct the problem. The banks are aware that the previously seen standard types of mortgage fraud will be replaced by more complex schemes in an effort to beat the system.

Surprisingly, Florida has passed Rhode Island as the top state involved with mortgage fraud. Apparently Rhode Island is doing something right as they dropped out of the top ten. Following Florida for the top spots are New York, California, Arizona and Michigan. Eight of the top spots are from the eastern portion of the United States. As Miami and South Florida have become the target for Medicare fraud, they will also continue to be a focal point for real estate fraud. Anyone involved in mortgage fraud should be aware that local, as well as, federal investigators are specifically assigned the task of looking for individuals involved in these types of fraudulent activities. If someone is contacted by local or federal mortgage fraud investigators, they should immediately contact a Miami criminal defense law firm experienced in handling real estate fraud cases. Never speak to law enforcement without being represented by counsel. The majority of mortgage fraud cases are complicated and difficult to prove. Anyone suspected of being involved in a mortgage fraud scheme will only make the case stronger for the prosecution by providing a statement to law enforcement.

The majority of mortgage fraud cases stem from misrepresentations on mortgage applications. The other most popular type of fraud relates to property appraisals. Other cases involve false verifications of deposits, escrow funds or closing costs. In any event, prosecutors are looking to impose harsh sentences on any involved in the aforementioned schemes. If you are being investigated or have been arrested in any one of the frauds mentioned above, it would be in your best interest to hire a lawyer to protect your rights.

Mortgage Fraud Incidents Rise 7% Last Year, The Associated Press, April 26, 2010.

May 18, 2010

Jamaican Government Agrees to Extradite Cocaine Trafficking Kingpin

Succumbing to pressure from his own government and the United States, the Jamaican Prime Minister signed extradition orders for one of Jamaica's most notorious cocaine trafficking kingpins. Denying several requests to extradite Christopher "Dudus" Coke, Prime Minister Bruce Golding changed gears and announced that he would allow the alleged drug trafficker to be extradited to New York to stand trial. An indictment out of New York alleges that Coke has been involved in cocaine trafficking, marijuana trafficking and gunrunning since the 1990's. Once Coke is extradited to the United States, it is believed that he will retain a criminal defense law firm to defend the allegations.

When the information regarding the information went public, widespread fear hit the streets of Kingston with businesses shutting down and people fleeing the city. According to court documents, Coke is the leader of gang called the "Shower Posse" with ties to cocaine, marijuana and firearm trafficking. The gang controls a neighborhood within Kingston called "Tivoli Garderns". The interesting part is that Golding represents "Tivoli Gardens" in parliament. Coke has been credited for keeping the neighborhood a relatively peaceful place to live. In an interesting turn of events, the prime minister had previously authorized the retention of a Los Angeles criminal defense law firm to lobby Washington to drop the extradition.

Unless something changes, Coke will be flown to the United States and appear at a pre-trial detention hearing before a federal court magistrate judge. Th criminal lawyer representing Coke may seek an extraordinary bond to secure his client's release. In deciding whether issue Coke or any other defendant for that matter a bond, the federal magistrate must determine whether or not the defendant is a danger to the community. In all probability, the magistrate will find that the defendant is a danger to the community because the allegations include drug trafficking and gun smuggling. The second decision a magistrate must make in determining a bond is a defendant's ties to the community. Coke's counsel will have difficult time proving that he is not a flight risk. The defendant has no ties to the community and had to be extradited back to the United States. In all likelihood, Coke will sit in jail awaiting trial.

The federal government despite its crusades against mortgage fraud and Medicare fraud, continue the war on drugs. Recent extraditions from Columbia, Mexico and now Jamaica demonstrate that the federal authorities are still attempting to diminish the inflow of drugs into this country. Even with the extradition of foreign drug traffickers to face federal charges, one would think that the federal government would understand that the removal of one trafficker would beget another to take his or her place. The war on drugs has continued since the Reagan administration. While the effort has been exhaustive and the amount of cocaine flowing into Miami has diminished, new fronts on the Mexican border have opened up to move illegal substances into the country.

Jamaica Agrees to Turn Over Accused Drug Kingpin to U.S., The Miami Herald, May 17, 2010.

May 17, 2010

Prison Populations in Florida Continue to Grow

As time passes on, the prison population in the State of Florida continues to grow. The costs are growing to astronomical numbers, while the money being used for education and construction projects continue to dwindle. Not only do the taxpayers and the citizens of Florida pay for the exorbitant costs that accompanies a growing prison population, but the defendants who are overpopulating the jails are also paying a price. In 1995, the state spent $1.6 billion running its penal system, while in 2010, the budget calls for $2.4 billing in spending. Despite the decrease in crime across the state, the prisons are being overwhelmed by two factors. The first is the growing population in Florida, while the second is the sentencing enhancements that continue to be drafted and passed by the legislature. While the crimes of cocaine trafficking, mortgage fraud, marijuana possession and aggravated assault have been on the books for many years, the legislature continues to add more offenses punishable under the penal code. While the prisons become more populated, Miami criminal lawyers have never been more busy defending their clients in state court.

Prior to the late 70's and the early 80's, the judges sitting on circuit court benches had a wide discretion in determining sentences for defendants who entered pleas or who were found guilty after trial. Under those sentencing guidelines, there were no minimum mandatory penalties, no career criminal statutes, parole existed and prisoners usually did about 25% of their sentence prior to being released. In the 1990's, the legislature took discretion regarding sentencing away from the circuit judges by implementing sentencing guidelines. With the guidelines came offense levels and the offense severity ranking chart. As time has passed, the legal reasons for sentencing departures available to judges has also been diluted. As a result of all of these changes, the State of Florida is expected to have a prison population of 115,000 by 2015. According to reports, the 20% increase in population will require the state to build nine new prisons at an estimated cost of $862 million.

The drug trafficking minimum mandatory sentences should be revisited by the legislature. The minimum mandatory sentences came to fruition in the 1980's in an effort to combat the ongoing cocaine trafficking problem in Miami that gained national attention. Not only were trafficking minimum mandatories created for cocaine, but also for heroine and other dangerous narcotics. Eventually, the legislature included man made drugs such as oxycodone in the minimum mandatory structure. Anyone in possession of in excess of 28 grams of oxycodone pills will be charged with oxycodone trafficking and is facing a 25 year minimum mandatory sentence. Until recently minimum mandatories for marijuana trafficking did no exist. Any experienced criminal attorney in Miami could guarantee a client probation no matter the amount of marijuana being trafficked. However, with the rise of the marijuana grow house, anyone in possession of more than 25 pounds of marijuana is facing at least a three year minimum mandatory.

After the trafficking minimum mandatories were created, the career criminal statutes were passed piece meal over the years. Some of the sentencing rules allowed for the doubling of prison sentences, while other statutes imposed lengthy minimum mandatory and life sentences. The law changed that set forth the premise that life meant life. Parole was no longer available, and if a defendant was sentenced to life, he or she left jail in a pine box, unless he or she was lucky enough to win some type of post-conviction relief motion or appeal. While an argument can be made for the enhanced sentenced handed down for violent crimes, out of fairness to some defendants, and in ane effort to decrease the state's budget, some of the minimum mandatory laws need to be relaxed and more discretion must be give to our elected judiciary.

Florida Prison Population: Growing by Leaps and Bounds, The Ledger.com, May 17, 2010.

May 13, 2010

South Florida Woman Charged with Mortgage Fraud

Federal investigators believe they have captured and charged a ring leader of statewide mortgage fraud scheme. Several of her co-conspirators have already entered guilty pleas or went to trial in both state and federal court. Yvette Valdes, a former Homestead mortgage broker, was indicted for falsifying mortgage application, lying to financial lending institutions and keeping the fraudulently obtained money for her own use and benefit. Court papers indicate that she fraudulently obtained money for two properties located in Southwest Miami-Dade County. She appeared in federal court with her criminal defense lawyer. Valdez if formally charged with three counts of wire fraud and is facing up to 30 years in prison.

Valdes was allegedly linked to a banker from New York named Orson Benn. Benn was convicted in 2008 in Polk County for his involvement in multi-million mortgage fraud scheme. He was tried in state court by the statewide prosecutor's office. A jury convicted Benn on racketeering charges and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Valdes is accused of brokering in excess of $22 million in loans over a 16 month period for Benn. The majority of the mortgage applications contained fraudulent or misleading information. Like most mortgage fraud cases, the documents inflated buyers incomes and falsifying employment records. Many of the buyers were family members.

Other family members involved are her daughter, her brother and son-in-law. All three worked at her mortgage broker company called Best Choice Mortgage. All three were charged in federal court along with the owner of a title company purportedly involved in the Miami mortgage fraud scheme. The indictment alleges that all of the defendants were involved in one fashion or another in supplying false information to JP Morgan Chase Bank. The bank provided in excess of $500,000 to fund the purpose of two properties. The prosecution alleges that the funds were used for their personal benefit.

Valdez first became a suspect in 2005, but state regulators never pursued a criminal case against her. Mortgage fraud investigations sometimes take years to reach a courtroom. Mortgage fraud investigators take their time collecting documents and speaking to witnesses prior to bringing the evidence to state or federal prosecutors. Once the prosecution has been presented the evidence, they look at everything before filing charges. The federal government and the statewide prosecutors have created specialized mortgage fraud units to handle the cases. Despite the specialized units, the vast amount of mortgage fraud cases being prosecuted in Miami and South Florida also cause a delay in the bringing of charges.

Because of the media attention and problems that mortgage fraud has caused the economy, state and federal budgets have allowed for large amounts of money and manpower to prosecute mortgage fraud cases. While indictments are being brought weekly, the number of cases is sure to slow down as the banks have tightened up their lending polices. If someone is being investigated for or has arrested for being involved in a mortgage fraud scheme, it is imperative to seek the advice from a criminal law firm that practices mortgage fraud defense both in state or federal court.

Homestead Mortgage Broker Charged with Fraud, The Miami Herald, May 11, 2010.

May 12, 2010

Florida Legislature Passes Law Affecting Convicted Sex Offenders

The Florida legislature passed a bill which prohibits sex offenders and predators from coming within 300 feet of where children congregate. The bills specifically declares off limits locations such as schools, parks and playgrounds. The 300 foot ban imposed against those convicted of crimes such as sexual battery and lewd and lascivious conduct is in effect 24 hours a day. If a person previously convicted of a sex offense and characterized by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) as a sexual offender or sexual predator is caught within 300 feet of a school, park or playground, they will charged with a first degree misdemeanor which is punishable up to a year in jail. This another example why a defendant must retain a highly qualified Miami criminal lawyer to defend all sexually motivated crime. While a plea to probation may be an easy way out of a case and certainly avoids incarceration, the life long effects of entering such a plea will eventually become apparent.

Another law passed by the State of Florida also impacts individuals deemed to be sexual offenders or sexual predators. The current state of the law in Florida does not permit convicted sex offenders or predators to live within a 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and parks. If the state law was not onerous enough, some individual South Florida counties and municipalities have passed there own rules increasing the living restriction to 2,500 feet. Legislators attempted to amend the most recently passed bill to reflect 2,500 feet, but it was withdrawn at the last minute. The problem of the increased living restrictions became apparent with the recent media attention to the shanty town created by sexual offenders and predators living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Other jurisdictions have had similar problems with offenders not being able to live anywhere legal. These individual move into the streets where state authorities can not track them as required by the law.

If someone is being investigated or has been arrested for being involved in a sex offense, it is imperative not to speak with law enforcement investigators. On many occasions, individuals involved in these types of investigations believe their version of events provided to law enforcement will somehow prevent an arrest and prosecution. While a statement maybe on the whole exculpatory, minor details may be gleaned by detectives to make their case stronger. The constitution of the United States provides that everyone has the right to refuse to speak to law enforcement and also has the right to request not speaking to authorities without having a criminal attorney by their side. Take advantage of your rights. These laws apply to all types of cases from DUI's to first degree murder.

There are many offenses that if pled to will cause a person to be labeled a sexual offender or sexual predator. Some of the offenses are sexual battery, indecent exposure, lewd and lascivious behavior and possession or distribution of internet child pornography. A plea to any of these charges will most likely result in a person being labeled as a sexual offender or sexual predator. Defendants should also be aware that even if charges are negotiated as a part of plea bargaining, FDLE can still label someone as a sexual offender or predator even if they plead to a non-sexually motivated offense. The best way to avoid any of these consequences is to hire a highly qualified criminal defense firm to beat the case outright.

Florida Senate Votes to Ban Sex Offenders from Loitering Near Schools, Park, Sun Sentinal.com, April 30, 2010.

May 11, 2010

Jury Selection Begin in Murder Retrial

A jury trial is set to begin this week on a 1992 murder and aggravated child abuse case. Back in 1992, a local woman was tried and convicted for the fatal beating of her three year-old son. Anna Maria Cardona was accused of beating her child to death with a baseball bat. After she was convicted, she was sentenced to the death penalty. First degree murder is a capital offense with is punishable by the death penalty or life in prison. Aggravated child abuse is a second degree felony punishable up to 15 years in prison. After her conviction, the public defender's office filed an appeal with the 3rd District Court of Appeal. The appellate criminal lawyer representing Cardona eventually appeared before the Supreme Court of Florida.

The post-conviction relief attorney argued that prosecutors from the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office withheld intentionally or inadvertently exculpatory evidence ("Brady Material") that would have been favorable to the defendant in trial. The Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors should have revealed to her defense attorney interviews that were conducted by law enforcement of the main witness for the State of Florida. The pre-trial statements provided by the witness apparently contradicted the her testimony at trial.

The case garnered a lot of attention and the victim was dubbed "Baby Lollipops" because of the design on his T-shirt when he was discovered. The crime gathered media attention due to the age of the child and the heinous nature of the crime. The 3 year-old child was found in the bushes on Miami Beach. The scarred body was discovered by a passerby. The medical examiner testified that the victim died as a result of blunt trauma to the head. The medical examiner also discovered bite marks on the body and other indications that the child had been tortured.

Along with Cardona, the State of Florida also charged Olivia Gonzalez-Mendoza with first degree murder and aggravated child abuse. In order to avoid a possible death sentence, Gonzalez-Mendoza entered a guilty plea to second degree murder and aggravated child abuse. In exchange for her testimony, she received a 40 year prison sentence and avoided a death sentence. She eventually served 15 years of the 40 year sentence and was released from state prison on January 1, 2008.

First degree murder is a capital offense. A capital offense simply means that the case carries either an automatic life sentence or death sentence in the event of a conviction. Capital cases according to law must be bifurcated. The first part of the case is used to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. If the jury convicts a defendant, the case moves on to the sentencing phase. The same jury that heard the evidentiary portion of the case will be summoned for the sentencing phase. If the original jury cannot be gathered, the trial judge can summon a new jury for the sentencing phase. After evidence is presented at the hearing, the jury must determine whether (1) sufficient aggravating factors exist as codified under the sentencing guidelines, (2) whether sufficient mitigating factors outweigh aggravating circumstances, and (3) based on those considerations, determine whether a life sentence of the death penalty is granted. Of course, the decision made by the court and the jury can be appealed to higher courts in the State of Florida.

Jury Selection Tuesday In "Baby Lollipops" Re-trial, CBS4.com, May 11, 2010.

May 10, 2010

Identity Theft Being Investigated by Law Enforcement

Identity theft affects all current walks of life causing serious consequences for the victims of this growing fraud crime. More and more, social security numbers of innocent victims are falling into the hands of the wrong people. Once a person's social security number falls into the wrong hands, it can seriously affect a person's credit history. South Florida and Miami have become a hotbed for identity theft. In fact, in 2009, in excess of 22,000 identity theft complaints were made in the State of Florida. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Florida has taken over the leader in identity theft, as is the case with Medicare fraud and mortgage fraud. The federal government is taking identity theft cases very seriously. The legislature recently amended the identity theft statute to include more serious charges dubbed aggravated identity theft. Aggravated identity theft carries a two year minimum mandatory prison sentence. If you or someone you know has been charged with identity theft, contact a Miami criminal defense law firm with experience if federal court to assist in defending the case.

Investigations have revealed the social security numbers can be compromised in a multitude of ways. Individuals can gain access to social security numbers from the internet, crooked healthcare clinics, department of motor vehicle employees looking to make a buck, or from the trash. While social security numbers have been used in the past to commit credit card fraud or mortgage fraud, it appears that undocumented workers are paying for the fraudulent numbers to gain work. Even companies are using the stolen numbers to make workers look legitimate. The stolen social security numbers are also being used to commit worker's compensation fraud.

A current case being investigated by the federal authorities involves an 18 year-old college student. The feds don't know how the social number was acquired, but they do know that dozens of blue collar workers have used the number to obtain employment in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. According to reports cities with large immigrant populations have had the largest number of reported identity thefts in the country. Typically, individuals looking for work will pay up top $200 for the illegally obtained social security numbers. The sad part is that the people making the purchases are simply trying to feed their families with out considering the long term difficulties being caused to the real social security number holders.

South Florida and Miami have become the recent target of numerous fraud related offenses including credit card fraud, mortgage fraud and Medicare fraud. Now identity theft can be added to the list being looked at closely by state and federal law enforcement authorities. While cocaine trafficking and marijuana grow houses used to be the biggest problem affecting the criminal justice system in South Florida, the court dockets are now replete with fraud related offenses. The problem has become so massive the both state and federal prosecutors' office have created specialized departments better suited to deal with the ver increasing problem. While the fraud related offenses used to carry pre-trial diversion or probation offers, the recent media attention are causing criminal lawyers a difficult time getting their reasonable plea offers even if their client s are first-time offenders.

Teens Get a Harsh Lesson in Identity Theft, The Miami Herald, May 8, 2010.

May 5, 2010

South Florida Man Receives 30 Year Sentence for Child Internet Porn

Cybercrimes involving child pornography have become more prevalent with the development of the internet. Child pornography is a multi-billion dollar a year industry and is one of the fasting growing crimes around the world. The State of Florida and the federal government have created a laws making it illegal to create or possess any material involving sexual conduct of a child under the age of 18. The illegal material includes photographs, motion pictures, representations or other presentations. The crimes itself is a specific intent offense which means the prosecution must prove that defendant knowingly possessed the illegal items. In state court, the possesion of child pornography is a second degree felony which is punishable up to 15 years in prison. While a mandatory prison is not directed under the state sentencing guidelines, anyone convicted of this offense is subject to being deemed a sexual offender or sexual predator by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. If you are being investigated or been arrested for possessing child pornography in South Florida, contact a Miami criminal defense firm experienced in defending sex offense cases.

While the state penalties may be limited, the federal sentencing guidelines regarding child pornography are much more stringent than the state guidelines. A Broward County man was sentenced to 30 years in prison for violating the federal child pornography laws. Scott Smith was arrested by FBI and ICE agents working together as part of the South Florida Crimes Against Children Task Force. Smith entered a guilty plea in federal court to charges alleging that he produced, distributed and possessed child pornography. The majority of the evidence against Smith was seized pursuant to a search warrant. The forensic inspection of his computer revealed numerous images and photographs involving child pornography. The arrest was part if an nationwide ICE investigation dubbed Operation Predator. The operation was created to identify, investigate and arrest individuals suspected of preying on abusing minors. Since 2003, the operation has been responsible for more than 12,000 arrests.

The federal government has stepped up its efforts to arrest anyone involved in child pornography. Obviously, the most sought after suspects are those that are involved in the production of child pornography. There has also been a worldwide movement to investigate all those who engage in the child pornography industry. According to the Department of Justice, the availability and accessibility of child pornography has skyrocketed with the development of the internet.

Law enforcement will investigate a suspect for many months prior to making an arrest for the sexual offense. It should be noted that police will sometimes get a warrant in an effort to seize computers containing child pornography. Without a warrant, the only way police can obtain a computer is by obtaining the consent of its owner. If anyone is ever contacted regarding a child pornography investigation, it is imperative to contact a criminal defense lawyer to discuss the matter. Always remember, if the police show up at your step, do not give them consent to take your computer. You are only obligated to provide it law enforcement if they have a validly executed search warrant.

South Florida Man Sentenced to 30 Years on Child Exploitation Charges, EthiopianReview.com, April 10, 2010.

May 4, 2010

Clinic Consultant Convicted on Medicare Fraud Charges

The Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human services announced that a former clinic owner was convicted of charges including Medicare fraud and money laundering in federal court. The charges stemmed from Medicare fraud scheme that billed the federal healthcare system for approximately $5.8 million dollars for HIV/AIDS infusions. According to the evidence provided at trial by government prosecutors, David Marrero was the owner/operator of a clinic in Miami that billed the federal healthcare system for expensive treatments including injections and infusions for HIV/AIDS patients. The evidence at trial alleged that the defendant recruited patients to attend his clinic. The patients did not suffer from any illness, nor were treatments ever provided to the patients.

During 2005 and 2007, Marrero allegedly submitted $5.8 million dollars in bills to Medicare. As a result of the fraudulent claims, Medicare paid out $2.7 for treatments that were not needed or never provided. Many former patients and employees of his clinic testified against Marrero at trial. Some of witnesses had been formally charged while others were never arrested and charged. In the prosecution of a Medicare fraud case, or any other type of criminal case for that matter, prosecutors will give plea deals to those co-defendants who cooperate against the ringleader of the scheme to defraud. In other instances, prosecutors will forgo charging an individual involved in a crime in exchange for cooperation in prosecuting the case.

In this case, a 76 year-old patient testified that he reached a deal with the clinic. It was agreed that the patient would receive a portion of the money billed to Medicare. The claim filed by clinic claimed that the patient suffered from HIV, as well as, other serious blood disorders. The claim alleged that the patient received an excessive amount of medication that could not possibly be tolerated by a human. The government called an expert witness who testified that it was impossible for a patient to receive that dosage in a single appointment. It should be noted that Medicare has recently instituted a system that can check whether patients are receiving impossible amounts of medication.

One of the clinic's former employees also testified against Marrero at trial. She testified how she was trained to falsify blood samples to justify the billings to Medicare. Evidence also came to light at trial that elderly patients received kickbacks for appearing at the clinics and providing social security and healthcare numbers. The case was investigated by the Medicare Strike Force which has been targeting clinics in Miami and the South Florida area for the last couple of years. The case was prosecuted by the United States Attorneys Office for the Southern District of Florida. The Strike Force operates throughout seven districts throughout the country and have been responsible for more than 500 indictments in federal court.

After the guilty verdict, Marrero was taken into custody pending his sentencing hearing. He is facing up to 10 years in prison on each count for which he was convicted and up to a $250,000 fine. Medicare fraud is constantly being investigated and prosecuted across the county. If you are being investigated or prosecuted for Medicare fraud, contact a Miami criminal defense law firm with experience in defending these types of cases. Anyone facing these types of charges needs representation from a criminal lawyer seasoned in defending cases in federal court.

Miami Clinic Consultant Convicted in $5.8 Million Fraudulent HIV Infusion Scheme, PRNewswire.com, May 4, 2010.

May 3, 2010

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Makes Nearly 600 Arrests

Throughout the southeastern United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made almost 600 arrests. Federal and local law enforcement agencies arrested hundreds of criminal aliens as part of Operation Cross Check. The operation was the largest undertaken under this type of law enforcement action. The majority of individuals arrested were taken into custody in Florida and Puerto Rico. ICE broke down the arrests by county and number. Miami-Dade County led the way with 48 arrests. Other counties where individuals were detained included Lee County, 14 arrests; Collier County, 5 arrests; Broward County, 24 arrests; Monroe County, 5 arrests, Palm Beach County, 11 arrest; Hillsborough County, 10, arrests; and Orange County, 25 arrests. Individuals were taken into custody for prior convictions ranging from sexual battery to marijuana possession. If you or someone you know was taken into custody for immigration reasons, immediately contact a Miami criminal law firm to address the problem.

Most people taken into immigration custody will seek the advice of an immigration attorney. However, to solve the problem, the previous conviction or convictions that are causing the immigration detention must vacated and dismissed by the prosecuting authority. A criminal lawyer with experience in vacating pleas will have the ability to set aside a previous conviction or withhold of adjudication. Know that immigration authorities do not distinguish between a conviction or a withhold of adjudication. Bear in mind that even if a successful morion for post-conviction relief is filed, the case is not automatically dismissed. In fact, when a judgement and sentence is vacated, the case is re-opened from where it left off and still needs to be defended. Once a case has been vacated and the charges dismissed, only then can an immigration attorney appear in federal immigration court to secure a person's release.

Operation Cross Check should act as a lesson. If you are a not a U.S. citizen and have a past criminal record seek out a lawyer who handles post-conviction relief matters at the earliest possible time. It is much easier to filed a motion to vacate and have the charges dismissed when a person is not being held in immigration custody. Most judges will require defendants to appear in court to resolve these types of matters. An individual in immigration custody will be at a disadvantage because he or she can not appear in court. Another lesson to be learned is that defendants should not enter pleas out of convenience. Immigration authorities do not care whether or not you served jail time, received probation or even the easiest plea of credit time served. The only thing that concerns immigration authorities is the charge to which an individual took a plea..

Prior to 9/11, individuals were only deported for major crimes such as armed robbery, burglaries, aggravated assault and batteries and the like. Under the current state of the law, a conviction for drug paraphernalia such as a marijuana or cocaine pipe can get someone deported. In fact two convictions for simple marijuana will allow for deportation. While the Supreme Court of Florida diluted the rules for vacating convictions, the Supreme Court of the United States recently handed down law to help non-citizens avoid deportation. If an experienced lawyer can show that a criminal attorney did not warn their clients that deportation can result as part of taking the plea, the judgement and sentence can be vacated.

Nearly 600 Criminal Aliens Arrested in Nationwide Sting, MarcoNews.com, April 30, 2010.

April 29, 2010

Oxycodone More of a Problem than Cocaine in South Florida

Cocaine trafficking and cocaine possession used to be the largest problem facing South Florida in the 1980's and 1990's. However, cocaine is no longer the most serious problem in Miami-Dade and Broward County. Cocaine has been replaced by pills taking the form of prescription medications. A recent report revealed that there are more pain clinics in the pill dispensing business in Broward County than McDonald's restaurants. While pain killers are not illegal if prescribed by doctors, there are serious consequences for trafficking in or selling medications such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.

Due the addictive nature of the prescription medications, the minimum mandatory sentences for trafficking pain medications is the same as for heroine trafficking. Merely possessing one pill is a third degree felony punishable up to five years in prison. As the number of pain clinics have grown in South Florida, Miami criminal defense lawyers are finding themselves defending more and more of these types of cases. If some is charged with trafficking in oxycodone or hydrocodone, minimum mandatory prison sentences will attach. There are three levels of minimum mandatory penalties that apply to these types of cases. Possession of more than four, but less than 14 grams of either of these prescription drugs carries a 7 year minimum sentence. Possession of more than 14 grams, but less than 28 grams carries a 15 year minimum sentence. Possession of more than 28 grams carries a 25 year minimum sentence.

Within the last year Broward County was the home to 176 pain clinics dispensing prescription medications. Law enforcement has become aware that these clinics are handing out pills rather than sending people to pharmacies. Florida legislators have passed a law that was developed to track the sale of pain killers. The politicians passed the law due to the fact that death related to prescription medications keep rising every year. In fact, there are more deaths related to overdoses from prescription medications than from cocaine or heroine. While the tracking system in theory will work, no funds have been allocated to the program. While Broward County is mostly effected by the pain clinics, Palm Bach County has seen a recent influx of the pill dispensers. Simply put, the clinics appear to be moving north through the State of Florida.

As law enforcement steps up their efforts to close down the clinics, clinic owners, as well as the doctors prescribing the medications will be under strict scrutiny. If an individual is arrested for oxycodone trafficking, sale of oxycodone or oxycodone possession is imperative to hire an criminal defense law firm experienced in defending drug charges. If you are being investigated or has been arrested for any of the aforementioned offenses, remember to invoke your right to remain silent and seek the assistance of a criminal lawyer. By speaking to law enforcement officers, you will be limiting the types of defenses that can be used to beat your case.

Invasion of the Pill Mills in South Florida, Time.com, April 13, 2010

April 28, 2010

Chief Operating Officer at Rothstein Firm Charged in Federal Court

The federal government filed an information against a former chief financial officer for her alleged involvement in the Rothstein $1.2 billion Ponzi Scheme. The information alleges one count of money laundering. Apparently, Debra Villegas is cooperating with federal investigators. The majority of cases filed in federal court are charged by indictment. However, federal prosecutors often charge cooperating defendants by information. Villegas is scheduled to appear in federal court with her criminal defense attorney for her arraignment this week. Her lawyer told reporters that his client would surrender at the arraignment and that she has in fact been cooperating with law enforcement, as well as, the prosecution since the inception of the case.

Villegas is facing 10 years in federal prison for allegedly helping her boss, Scott Rothstein, run the Ponzi scheme. She assisted him in fabricating legal settlements that were sold to wealthy investors. Villegas is the first co-conspirator to be charged along with Rothstein. Rothstein entered a guilty plea back in January to charges including racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud. Court documents revealed that Rothstein richly rewarded Villegas for her assistance in the scheme to defraud. In exchange for forging names of fictitious plaintiff's and defendants on fake court settlements, she received a home an expensive car and a $125,000 a year salary. Like all Ponzi schemes, the federal authorities are seeking an asset forfeiture for those items. In forfeiture proceedings, lawyers for the government have to prove that the items were obtained from ill-gotten gains. However, when defendants enter plea agreements with federal prosecutors, there is language in the agreement requiring the defendant to waive all rights to an asset forfeiture hearing.

Federal prosecutors are using Rothstein and Villegas to get other perpetrators that were attached to the Ponzi scheme. Former employees of the now defunct law firm of Rothstein, Rosenfeldt and Adler law firm are currently being investigated. It is believed that former partners Stuart Rosenfeldt and Russell Adler are being looked at as possible co-conspirators along with another senior partner named Steven Lippman. The former chief financial officer and general counsel are also being investigated. The criminal defense law firms representing those individuals claim that their clients were not involved and had no knowledge of the organized scheme to defraud. Both Rothstein and Villegas are seeking to reduce their prison sentences by providing substantial assistance to the authorities.

Pursuant to the Florida Sentencing Guidelines, defendants will often cooperate in the prosecution of other defendants in their case or help make other cases. If the defendant provides substantial assistance, federal prosecutors will file a motion stating that the defendant provided substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense. The actual motion filed by the government is referred to as a 5K. The court will evaluate the usefulness and nature and extent of the defendant's assistance in determining the appropriate sentence reduction. When a defendant must take a plea do to overwhelming evidence, the best way to reduce a sentence is by providing substantial assistance.

Officer in Rothstein Firm Charged, The Miami Herald, April 28, 2010.