August 25, 2012

DNA Leads to Arrest of a Man Accused of Sexual Battery

A former mayoral candidate was arrested in Rock Hill, South Carolina based on an arrest warrant that accused him of the crimes of armed sexual battery, burglary and robbery. Baxter Tisdale is currently in custody in South Carolina awaiting extradition to Miami, Florida to face the charges. Once Tisdale arrives in Miami, his case will be set for an arraignment before a circuit court judge. He will either be represented by a privately retained Miami criminal lawyer or an attorney from the Miami-Dade County Public Defender's Office. Tisdale waived extradition which will speed up his return to South Florida to face criminal charges.

When a defendant is arrested outside of the jurisdiction charging him or her with a crime, the extradition process must be complied with prior to the defendant being returned to the jurisdiction. A defendant can either waive or contest extradition. Waiving the process will allow for a more speedy return to the place from where the allegation occured. If a defendant does not agree to waive extradition, the prosecuting body must present the warrant to the jurisdiction holding the defendant and must be able to establish that the person in custody is the correct person sought in the warrant for committing an offense.

Tisdale is facing life in prison for the incident which occurred in the early morning hours on February 18, 1986. Court documents reflect that the defendant committing a burglary by entering the victim's residence without permission with the intent to commit a sexual battery. The defendant allegedly entered the victim's bedroom where she was sleeping with her seven month-old son. He is alleged to have placed a knife to her throat and raped her. Tisdale purportedly pushed her onto her bed, placed a pillow over her face and assaulted her sexually for approximately two minutes.

After the assault, the victim was treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital Rape Treatment Center in Miami, Florida. As is typical in most rape cases, hospital staff completed a rape treatment kit on the victim. As part of the process, DNA was collected which was later found to match that belonging to Tisdale. Defendants in most cases are required to provide a DNA swab upon being found guilty by a jury or entering a plea to certain offenses, typically felonies. The arrest warrant does not mention how the defendant DNA became part of the data base, but it is believed that he provided his DNA in another unrelated criminal matter. While the victim could not identify her attacker in a line-up, she did recall seeing him around the neighborhood. Even without a positive identification, the prosecuting authority will still have a solid case against the defendant based on the DNA evidence. Tisdale left Miami in 1986 and moved to Rock Hill where he has a criminal history for theft, petit larceny and driving with a suspended license. It is not clear whether he DNA became part of the data base as a result of those criminal offenses.

Police: Rape Victim Feared for Her Life with Knife to Throat, HeraldOnline.com, August 17, 2012.

August 13, 2012

Wide Receiver Arrested and Loses Job

Former Dolphin receiver Chad Johnson was arrested on domestic violence charges Saturday and then soon thereafter lost his job. According to police reports, Johnson allegedly head-butted his wife during a heated argument. Apparently, Evelyn Lozada, Johnson's new wife, found a receipt for condoms in the trunk of the car. The argument escalated to the point that the defendant purportedly resorted to physical violence. After the encounter, the alleged victim ran to a neighbors house where she called 911. Police arrived at the scene and discovered that the victim had a laceration on her forehead. The police found Johnson driving around the neighborhood when he was stopped and arrested for misdemeanor battery, a common charge in domestic violence cases. This not the first arrest in recent times for Miami Dolphin players accused of domestic violence.

Johnson was taken to jail and appeared at a bond hearing the following day. The bail was set at $2,500 and the judge issued a non-contact or stay-away order. Johnson, like other defendants arrested for domestic violence could not post bail immediately which is uncommon for most criminal charges. In domestic violence cases, defendants are required to appear before a bond hearing judge prior to their release from custody. There are two reasons for the delay in domestic violence cases. First, the delay allows for a cooling off period. More importantly, the judge has to issue the stay away order thereby causing a defendant to have to wait until the next available bond hearing to see a judge prior to release. The criminal lawyer representing appeared at the jail upon Johnson's release and ferreted him off to an unknown location.

A first time arrest for domestic violence is not normally a catastrophic event for a defendant with a clean arrest record. Of course that depends on the severity of the domestic violence and the charge(s) levied by the state attorneys's office. Typical charges for domestic violence include misdemeanor battery, misdemeanor assault, aggravated assault, felony battery or aggravated battery. Depending on the actions of the defendant and the injuries sustained by an alleged victim will often dictate what charges will be filed by the prosecution. The disposition of the case will be determined by the level of the offense charged, the victim's injuries and most importantly the victim's position as to how the case is to be resolved.

First time offenders of the domestic violence laws represented by a qualified criminal attorney can usually receive the benefit of a pre-trial diversion or pre-trial intervention program. If a defendant enters and successfully completes the program, the prosecution will nolle pros or dismiss the charges at a future date. Johnson will most likely not be eligible for the program as he has a previous domestic violence arrest back in his junior college days. He was placed on probation and ordered to take anger management classes. As long as the victim cooperates in the case, Johnson will most likely be looking at probation with more classes. Defendants who are eligible for the program are required to complete the a domestic violence program consisting of 26 to 28 classes which generally takes 6 to 12 months to complete. Of course defendants do not have to accept the program of probation and can opt to go to trial. Defendant who prefer this course of action mst retain counsel that is experienced in a criminal trial setting.

Ex-Dolphin Chad Johnson Posts Bail on Domestic Charge, Miami Herald.com, August 12, 2012.

August 6, 2012

IRS Losing Money to Identity Theft

With mortgage fraud and Medicare fraud reportedly under control, the federal government once again has its hands full. The new fraud on the street involves identity theft and refund checks being stolen from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to reports, the IRS has already lost an estimated $5 billion to individuals committing identity theft with expectations that another $21 billion may be lost over the next 5 years. While losses in no way compare to losses accrued through mortgage and Medicare fraud, the federal government is concerned. As the IRS begins to uncover the frauds that have occurred, the number of indictments involving stolen tax returns and identity theft will escalate. Criminal defense lawyers in Miami will be representing more and more clients involved with these offenses as the federal government figures out how to detect them.

The IRS is having difficulty detecting fraudulent tax refunds. According to the IRS, they discovered approximately 940,000 fraudulent returns last year preventing losses exceeding $6.5 billion. However, the IRS also reported that there could be as many as another 1.5 million fraudulent returns that went undetected. The IRS explained that the reason the fraudulent returns went undetected is because individuals are filing refunds on the behalf of deceased individuals, children and others who would not file a tax return. The IRS have specific examples of tax fraud and identity theft that they have found particularly disconcerting. For example, the IRS found that one address in Michigan was used to file 2,137 returns which in turn yielded $3.3 million in refunded money. As ususal, Florida made the list. Three addresses in Florida filed in excess of 500 returns which caused the IRS to return $1 million to each locaion.

The IRS claimed that they have difficulty in verifying returns because they attempt to process and return funds as quickly as possible. Individuals can file returns before employers and financial institutions have to submit withholding and income documents by the end of March. In sum, the IRS is offering refunds before they can verify whether the returns are being filed truthfully. The IRS made a point of saying that at present they are able to detect the majority of the identity theft tax fraud, but they are concerned of the exponential growth of the problem. The agency is actively pursuing those who commit fraud with increased assets and man-hours. The IRS along with inspector general has asked Congress to give them access to other resources that will help them more effectively fight the fraud.

In an effort to fight identity theft and tax fraud, the IRS has already begun to implement new measures. They have implemented screening filters which will not allow for refunds to be returned until a person's identity can be verified by the agency. According to the IRS, the new system has prevented $1.5 million in fraudulent returns. Another safeguard is a program that identifies social security numbers of deceased individuals. Senator Bill Nelson has approved a bill that will provide increased protections for social security numbers. Persons previously affected by identity theft will be given a special identification number to deter repeat offenses. Another billed passed by the House of Representatives is seeking to enhance the criminal penalties for identity theft and tax fraud.

IRS May Have Lost Billions to Identity Theft, Huffington Post.com, August 2, 2012.

August 1, 2012

Family Members Arrested for Marijuana Trafficking

Numerous members of the same family have been arrested and charged in federal court for trafficking in marijuana. A father and four sons have been indicted for owning and operating 20 hydroponic grow houses in the Miami area since 2004. Although all of the defendants were indicted, one of the sons remains at large and is listed as a fugitive. All of the defendants who are in custody were ordered into pre-trial detention by the magistrate presiding over the case. The defendants are either being represented by a privately retained criminal lawyers in Miami, Florida or defense attorneys appointed by the court. According to court documents, the grow houses reaped in millions of dollars of profits during their operation.

According to the prosecutor handling the case, the defendants harvested the hydroponic marijuana, then transported it to New York where is was sold for approximately $9,000 a pound. The investigation was upgraded to more than a routine narcotics case when information came to light that a couple of homicides were linked to the marijuana trafficking case. The main homicide case was related to a drug rip-off that occurred in 2009. Several armed men arrived at one of the grow houses claiming to be police officers. During the armed home invasion robbery, the gunmen charged into the home and stole approximately 40 pounds of the marijuana. The home owners reviewed surveillance tapes from the home security system and were able to recognize one of the home invaders.

One of the four sons allegedly hatched a conspiracy to kidnap and kill the identified home invader. The identified man was driving his white van in the vicinity of Southwest 127th Avenue and 187th Street when he was carjacked. He was forced to the rear of the van shot several times and dumped on the side of the road. The van was then stripped and burned leaving no evidence behind to assist in solving the crime. Detectives are also investigating a murder in West Kendall that is linked to the marijuana trafficking operation. That victim is believed to been suspected of stealing pot plants from one of the grow houses. Another the reason the case became so high-profile is because a Miami-Dade police officer was accused of being involved in the drug trafficking ring. That officer has been suspended with pay since 2009 pending the completion of the investigation.

Narcotics detectives claim to have come very close in the past to catching the defendants red-handed , but came up empty. By not catching the defendants actually operating the marijuana grow houses, they are relying on informants and cooperating witnesses to prove the case. While the facts alleged by the prosecution seem to imply that they have a strong case, there is no direct physical evidence that will link the father and his sons to the trafficking case or the murder for that matter. The prosecution is rather relying on circumstantial evidence provided in the form of testimony from paid informants and defendants seeking sentencing reductions based on their cooperation in the case. The defense attorneys representing the family members will undoubtedly rely very heavily on cross-examination techniques to seek acquittals on behalf of their clients.

Murder Undid Family's Hydroponic Marijuana Operation, Authorities Say, Channel 6 News Online.com, August 1, 2012.

July 19, 2012

Bailiff in Hot Water Amid Allegations of Misconduct

Last week, a veteran bailiff of the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court was arrested for her alleged involvement in accepting cash payments from defendants and passing the proceeds on to a local criminal lawyer who represented the same defendants. The bailiff is one of the best known and well-liked of the court staff that supports the Metro-Justice Building. According to investigators, they were able to obtain audio and video surveillance of the bailiff accepting cash payments from a defendant charged with several traffic infractions. According to court documents including the arrest affidavit and warrant, the cash was then passed onto a local criminal attorney.

The bailiff, a county employee, has been charged with three felonies including uttering a forged instrument, official misconduct, and receiving illegal compensation. She is also charged with a misdemeanor, more specifically, for violating the county's ethics code. The code does not permit county employees from recommending the services of any particular lawyer. The criminal attorney involved in the allegations has not been charged in the matter. Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle was quoted as saying, "For the courts, and all of us that work in the judicial system, it's very sad. The system depends on the confidence in the employees, and when you see a video like that, it certainly undermines that confidence."

The bailiff, although charged, remains innocent until proven guilty at trial or voluntarily enters a plea. Another option for her may be the pre-trial intervention program. The program is run by the state attorney's office. If a defendant stays out of trouble for six months, including no new arrests or other violations, and completes the conditions set forth by the prosecutor, the case will be dismissed. While the bailiff is certainly eligible for such a program, the current political situation and upcoming election may make that option unlikely, as the current state attorneys has been accused by her counter-part of not being tough enough on public corruption.

The veteran bailiff is represented by a private lawyer will defend the case on behalf of his client. She posted a $7,000 bond, but had no other conditions set by the bond hearing judge. The case was referred to the state attorney's office by another criminal lawyer who met one of the defendants after deciding not to continue doing business with the bailiff. Once the state attorney's office received this information, an undercover officer was sent in to deal with the bailiff as a defendant. During the dealings, the undercover official took video and audio surveillance of the transactions. While the penalties after trial or a plea are unknown at this point, it is almost certain that the bailiff will lose her government job and any retirement benefits that may have accompanied it.

Miami-Dade Bailiff Arrested on Allegation of Misconduct, Miami Herald.com, July 19, 2012.

July 13, 2012

Supreme Court Rules Drug Laws Are Constitutional

For all those charged under the "Florida Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act" who anxiously awaited for the Supreme Court of Florida to rule on the constitutionality of Florida's drug laws finally have their answer. Criminal lawyers in Miami, Florida have expressed their disappointment in the ruling. In a 5 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution need not prove that a particular defendant had knowledge about the "illicit nature" of the narcotics found in their actual or constructive possession. Criminal attorneys, as well as defendants charged with drug offenses have been waiting for the opinion in which if the law would have been unconstitutional would have led to the dismissal of thousands of cases with thousands of closed cases being vacated and then dismissed.

One of the Supreme Court Justices opined, "Nor is their a protected right to be ignorant of the nature of the property in one's possession." The majority opinion also reflected that is highly unusual for an innocent person to be unaware that he or she is carrying an illegal substance. The law regarding illegal drugs was changed in 2002 when the legislation no longer required prosecutors to prove that a defendant had "knowledge" of the illegal nature of the drugs. Bear in mind that just because knowledge is not a required element to prove a drug offense, a lack of knowledge could be presented to the prosecution prior to jury in effort to favorably resolve a case. Furthermore, the defense of a lack of knowledge could be presented to a jury, which if believed by the trier of fact would lead to an acquittal in the case.

The constitutionality of Florida's drug laws became an issue when a Middle District of Florida judge wrote in an opinion that the laws were unconstitutional and "Draconian". Once that opinion came down, defense attorneys filed thousands of motion to dismiss and motions to vacate cases where defendants had already been convicted and sentenced. Only two judges in the State of Florida ruled the laws unconstitutional and granted motions to dismiss and motions to vacate. A Miami-Dade County judge dismissed 39 felony cases. A Manatee County judge dismissed 46 criminal cases, one of which was sent to the Supreme Court that led to the ruling. All of the cases have been re-filed and will be prosecuted accordingly.

One of justices found that the potential sentences one faces under the Florida drug trafficking laws are staggering, but ultimately held that the law did not violate the constitution. One of the dissenting justices pointed out several examples of how an innocent person could be ensnared in the justice system. Two of the examples are individuals who rent automobiles being arrested for drugs left behind by the prior renter or individuals in airports who mistakenly pick up the wrong bag later found to be carrying illegal substances. The president of Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL) Miami branch expressed his displeasure with the ruling. None the less, the Supreme Court has ruled against defendants charged and/or convicted with drug crimes. With that being said, criminal defense lawyers will have to continue defend their clients charged with drug possession, drug sales and drug trafficking the old fashioned way, hard work and preparation.

State's Drug Law Constitutional, Florida Supreme Court Rules, Miami Herald.com July 12, 2012.

July 5, 2012

Local Cops Arrested

Three Homestead police officers were placed under arrest Monday night for their alleged involvement in a series of beatings that occurred outside a local bar last year. All of the officers have each retained a Miami criminal lawyer to defend the charges. The first officer accused of committing a criminal offense is Sergeant Jeffrey Rome. He is alleged to have beaten and/or pepper-sprayed three men outside Celio's Latin Quarter Bar. According to court documents and the arrest warrant, two of the incident were recording on surveillance tapes. The odd part is that the video was taken by undercover officers investigating human trafficking that was occurring at the bar. Rome is charged with the offense of battery, false imprisonment and abuse of the elderly.

Two other officers, Sergeant Lizanne Deegan and Officer Giovanni Soto are also accused of being involved in separate beatings that occurred outside the same bar. Deegan is charged with official misconduct, while Soto is charged with simple battery and official misconduct. All of the officers have been suspended with pay since the allegations came to light in April 2011. All of the defendants were arrested and were released from the Miami-Dade County Jail after posting bond. All of the officers exited the jail by hopping a fence and climbing into a black SUV to avoid and confrontation with the press who were waiting outside the facility.

According to the arrest warrants which are now public record, Rome is accused pepper-spraying a man three times outside the bar. The bar is frequented by Hispanic migrant workers. According to the victim, he had been robbed outside the bar and went to Rome for help. Instead of helping the victim, the warrant alleged that he used his pepper-spray. The warrant further alleges that in 2011, Rome dragged an elderly man out of the bar and kicked him in the head. The video purportedly shows Rome trying to revive the man by pouring water on him.

Deegan and Soto were charged with another beating that occurred outside of the bar. The victim told investigators that Soto repeatedly beat him outside the bar and then dropped him off at his home. The victim requested medical treatment, but was refused. However, according to the warrant, Soto called 911 and the victim was transported to Homestead Hospital. Deegan allegedly followed the ambulance to the hospital, took crime scene photos and provided the victim with a police case number. She is charged with official misconduct for failing to author a report regarding the incident. The attorneys representing the defendants made statements to the effect that each of their clients will be exonerated of all the charges once they are able to avail themselves of the criminal process.

Three Homestead Officers Charged in Beating Case, Miami Herald.com, July 3, 2012.

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.

May 29, 2012

South Florida Criminalizing Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is on the radar screen for numerous cities and counties located in the South Florida area. Marijuana grow houses have become big business in Miami and across South Florida. Local police departments and federal agencies have spent the last four or so years attempting to shut down grow house operations. The legislature created new laws regarding grow houses and added a three-year minimum mandatory sentence to the mix. The large number of grow house cases have kept criminal lawyers in Miami-Dade County busy defending their clients, but a new crime for the possession or manufacture of synthetic marijuana may soon be promulgated by the Florida legislature.

Law enforcement has seen an increase in the popularity of synthetic marijuana. Since there are no laws prohibited the new substance, local municipalities have begun to pass local ordinances banning it. Sweetwater in Miami-Dade County has already passed such an ordinance with the City of Sunrise located in Broward County soon to follow. Other jurisdictions drafting ordinances include Miami-Dade County, Broward County and the cities if Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Hallandale Beach, Pembroke Pines, Miami Gardens and Pompano Beach. The synthetic marijuana comes in candy-like packaging and is sold in gas stations and convenience stores. The fake marijuana is commonly referred to on the street as "Spice" or "K2" has been deemed to have serious side effects such as a rapid heart rate, anxiety, nausea, seizures, hallucinations, renal failure and in some cases death.

Recently, a West Palm Beach warehouse being used to manufacture the synthetic marijuana exploded causing damage to the warehouse and nearby businesses. Very few manufacturing facilities have been discovered, but the local governments are aware that they exist. Sunrise has not uncovered any such facilities, but the police have been proactive in informing local businesses of the ban. Many stores have begun to pull the items from the shelves. Many complaints have been filed with parents claiming their children are hooked on the new drug. According to the complaints, the synthetic drug has caused serious automobile accidents and violent episodes. The high associated with the fake pot is alleged to be similar to that of crack cocaine.

Those who manufacture the substance have avoided state and federal prosecution by constantly changing the chemical make-up and by labeling the packaged product as herbal incense that is not to be used for oral consumption. Nine states have attempted to ban the substance by outlawing the chemicals. Florida law currently outlaws herbal incense, but only if the label reads for human consumption. Lawmakers around the country are becoming aware of the problem and may be soon to act. Poison control centers have received thousands of calls since 2010 regarding problems after people ingested the substance. If the problem continues, look for the Florida legislation to act to ban these substances. The situation is somewhat similar to the problems that arose when MDMA or "ecstacy" was introduced in the early 1990's.

Synthetic Marijuana: South Florida Cities and Counties Cracking Down on Fake Pot, WPTV.com, May 28, 2012.

May 22, 2012

Woman Sentenced to Life Receives Reduced Sentence

A woman sentenced to life in prison for her purported involvement in a murder plot was re-sentenced last week which led to her release from a federal detention facility. Defenses lawyers from Miami, Florida were finally able to persuade the presiding judge that her life sentence was not warranted. Yuby Ramirez was set to spend the rest of her life in prison for her involvement in murder conspiracy case that was contrived to protect two men who were later convicted on cocaine trafficking charges. Although, Ramirez had appeared to have a somewhat minor role in the conspiracy, she was sentenced to life in prison. Under, federal and Florida state law, defendants sentenced to life in prison will never be released on parole unless an appeal of some other form of post-conviction relief is granted.

Ramirez allegedly had a supporting role in the murder plot to kill a government witness set to testify against two of Miami's most infamous "Cocaine Cowboys". The plot was against Bernardo Gonzalez in an effort to protect Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, both dropouts from Miami Senior High School. Gonzalez was a former associate of the two defendants and agreed to cooperate with government prosecutors and investigators in exchange for a reduced sentence. Falcon later entered a plea deal for which he is serving 20 years. Magluta opted for trial and was sentenced to 195 years in prison. Gonzalez initially was in charge of the Miami-Bahamas cocaine operation. He murdered in his home in June 1993. Ramirez was accused of housing the hitmen assigned to kill Gonzalez along with the weapons used in he murder. Ramirez also provided the vehicle used in the hit.

The sentence reduction was based on a motion for post-conviction relief that accused the defense attorneys representing Ramirez of convincing her not to accept a relatively light sentence. According to Ramirez, who testified at the hearing, defense attorneys talked her out of accepting a 5 to 10 year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. She also convinced the judge that the lawyers did not advise her that she could receive life in prison if she was found guilty at trial. Essentially, Ramirez and her defense team convinced the judge that she had received affirmative mis-advice amounting to ineffective assistance of counsel. The judge found that a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's mis-advice, Ramirez would have accepted the government's offer and pled guilty." Ramirez agreed to re-enter a plea in exchange for a 12 year sentence which amounted to credit time served. She was released from prison, but immediately taken into immigration custody.

Motions to vacate for ineffective of counsel can also be filed under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. If a defendant entered a plea based on a material misrepresentation provided by counsel, that individual may be entitled to post-conviction relief, if the misrepresentation was material. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a ruling which allows for a plea to be vacated if a defense lawyer provided material misinformation regarding the immigration consequences of entering a plea. The local appellate court has ruled that the new law is not retro-active and cannot be used for cases that pre-date 2010. The Supreme Court of Florida is currently waiting to decide whether the law should be applied retroactively. The decision and opinion should be handed down in the next couple of months.

Miami Woman Freed from Life Sentence in "Willie and Sal" Drug-Murder Hit, Miami Herald.com, May 15, 2012.

May 7, 2012

Multiple Medicare Fraud Busts Across the Country

Doctors, nurses and social workers were all arrested by federal authorities in seven cities around the country for their alleged involvement in unrelated Medicare fraud schemes. The Medicare fraud amounted to billing in excess of $452 million. It is the single largest Medicare fraud bust orchestrated by the federal authorities to date. Federal investigators and prosecutors are still trying to curb a problem that costs taxpayers an estimated $60 billion to $90 billion per year. Since 2009, Health and Human Services has thrown a countless a mount of money and man hours to fighting what they believe is a systemic problem. Just when it appears the number of prosecutions on Medicare fraud cases may be subsiding, the feds make a nationwide bust. Criminal lawyers either privately retained or supplied by the federal public defenders' offices will represent the 107 defendants arrested in seven cities around the country.

It is no surprise that the arrests came out of Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa, Baton Rouge. These cities have long been considered the hotbeds for Medicare fraud. Two individuals arrested out of Baton Rouge operated community mental health centers. The centers would recruit elderly people and those with mental health and drug addiction issues. The clinics billed $225 million for treatments that were unnecessary or never provided. The indictment not only addresses the massive fraud, but also efforts of the owners of the centers to destroy incriminating documents. Once their operations were shut down, it is alleged that they tried to sell their patients to other clinics and medical centers. Five other people from Baton Rouge were also arrested for their involvement. The arrests came after a six year investigation conducted by federal authorities.

Miami is home to more than 50 defendants that were also arrested for fraud. The grand total of the fraud was alleged to have exceeded $136 million. The defendants arrested were not all part of the same scheme to defraud, but were all alleged to have been involved in community healthcare centers and home health care operations. According to investigators, the latest trend in Medicare fraud involves community mental healthcare centers. The centers have become popular schemes as individuals involved in Medicare fraud move away from the more common HIV treatments, medical equipment businesses and home healthcare. Federal investigators have been trying to keep up with the evolution of the federal healthcare fraud.

Individuals charged with healthcare fraud are facing serious consequences, months or even years in prison. While the offense of fraud is serious, the poignant problem is the sharp escalation under the federal sentencing guidelines that results from the large amounts of losses suffered by the federal government as a result of the fraud. Losses in excess of a million dollars can certainly land someone in the federal prison from 8 to 10 years. Any reductions in sentencing will only be afforded those who agree to cooperate with the government. Cooperating with the government includes providing information against others committing fraud and possibility of testifying against co-defendants at trial.

107 Charged in Medicare Fraud Busts in 7 Cities, CBSNews.com, May 7, 2012.

May 1, 2012

Meetings Begin in Tallahassee to Discuss "Stand Your Ground"

The task force created to look at the current state of the law regarding self-defense embarks on its review Florida's Stand Your Ground Law. Every Miami criminal defense lawyer is anxiously awaiting the outcome to see if any change in the law will affect present and future clients. In addition to the task created by the governor, and independent task force created by a state senator will also look at the law to determine if it should be changed to minimize the use of the law in future cases. Senator Chris Smith claims that the law should be changed to allow law enforcement officers more of an opportunity to investigate crimes committed against unarmed victims, thus reducing the ability of criminals to use the law as a way to avoid prosecution. Smith intends for his task force to compile a report which would provide the governor and the legislature guidance in how to modify the current state of the law.

Under the current state of the law, a stand your ground defense will initially be heard by a judge in response to a motion to dismiss filed by a defense attorney. After taking testimony and reviewing physical evidence, the judge has the power to dismiss a case, or in the alternative, deny the motion and set the case for trial. Smith proposes that a stand your ground defense would be better off heard by a grand jury who would determine whether or not a defendant should stand trial. Smith's group is also advocating for changes in the self-defense law which include re-writing the law, thus limiting its application, and a tracking system for cases in which the defense is based on stand your ground. The committee has declined to advocate for an outright repeal of the law.

The task force created by the governor is meeting today simply to establish its goals and plan future meetings to discuss the law. After several meetings, it is anticipated that the panel will submit suggestions to the governor and the legislature about how to improve the stand your ground law. The good news is that changes are not imminent and that defendants currently charged with violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, aggravated battery and aggravated assault have time to submit motions to dismiss under the current change of law. With that being said, it seems unavoidable that the law will eventually be pared back by the legislature, allowing for fewer defendants to seek asylum under the law. Defense attorneys and representatives from state attorneys offices are concerned with the potential outcome of the meetings and will appear at various times in Tallahassee to express their views.

Defense attorneys believe that there are very valuable points to the law as it currently exists, while prosecutors believe that the law also has positive aspects, but is often applied inconsistently due to its broad language. While the law should be limited to strictly to self-defense cases, it has no place in domestic violence cases or in cases where there are unintended deaths that occur as a result of shootouts resulting from street level narcotics dealings. The major concern among prosecutors and legislators is that the law is being used as a shield by defendants who really should not have a right to avail themselves of the stand your ground law.

Florida Task Force Seeks Major Overhaul to Stand Your Ground Law, Miami Herald.com, May 1, 2012.