May 9, 2012

The Eleventh Circuit On Tax Crimes and Grouping Under the Sentencing Guidelines

Stuart Register ran a business that conducted criminal background checks on people.

He had a number of employees. Employees, of course, have to be paid. To pay them, he used a payroll company - PrimePay. PrimePay withheld taxes from the employees' pay, and told Mr. Register how much he needed to send to the government for those taxes.

Mr. Register did not send money that was withheld to pay taxes.

As you might suspect, that is a federal crime.

Mr. Register also falsified his personal taxes from 2003 until 2006.

That is also a federal crime.

169849_tax.jpgHe was indicted and pled guilty without a plea agreement.

The tax loss - the amount of money the government lost because of the tax crime - for Mr. Register's withholding offense was a little more than $300,000.

The loss for his falsified tax returns was around $115,000.

The question is - should Mr. Register be punished more because he had two separate kinds of tax offenses.

A step back is helpful. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, sometimes, two different offenses "group." And sometimes they don't. Generally, a person being sentenced wants the charges to group.

Intuitively, you can see that if a person robs two banks, those are separate crimes with separate victims. The harm caused by the bank robbery is the fear instilled in the teller, as well as the money taken from the bank.

So, if a person robs a bank on Monday, then on Tuesday robs the same bank again - but with a different teller let's say - you would think there are two separate harms. As a result, you would want the person's sentence to increase based on the second scary thing that happened to the teller.

And the guidelines accommodate that intuition - when there are two separate harms like that the crimes do not group. When things do not group, then each serves to increase the sentence that the sentencing guidelines suggest.

Imagine, though, that the person is just embezzling from the bank. Suppose, let's say, that a teller is slipping money out when counting the receipts. And she does that on Monday and Tuesday. There, the harm is the money being stolen. So, the guidelines count all the money that's taken, and add it together, but do not treat each separate event as something that necessarily should increase the person's sentence - beyond the increase that comes just from more money being added.

For Mr. Register, the question was whether the two tax offenses should group.

The probation officer preparing the presentence report said that they do not group. Both Mr. Register and the government objected, and the probation officer stuck to his or her guns. In response to the joint objection, the probation officer said (with my emphasis added),

The guidelines direct under USSG ยง 3D1.2 that counts can be grouped together when they involve substantially the same harm. Under subsection (b), counts can be grouped together when they involve the same victim and two or more acts connected by a common criminal objective or common scheme or plan. Under subsection (d) counts can be grouped together when the offense level is determined largely on the basis of the total amount of harm or loss. The defendant has been convicted of 17 counts representing two offenses: Failure to Pay Over Taxes to the [IRS] and Filing Fraudulent Federal Income Tax Returns. During the years 2004 through 2007, the defendant failed to pay over employment taxes to the IRS for his employees. In addition, during the same period, he failed to pay income taxes on his own income and claimed inflated amounts of federal income tax withheld causing the IRS to pay him refunds that he was not entitled to. Although the IRS is the ultimate victim in both endeavors, the probation office views the defendant's criminal behavior as two separate criminal objectives with two separate harms. It does not appear that the defendant committed both acts to specifically defraud the IRS. It does appear that the acts occurred as a result of his lifestyle and/or his personal financial situation. His behavior was not part of a single course of conduct with a single criminal objective.

So, the probation officer concluded that because there was no single course of conduct, there could be no singular harm, even though the one singular entity - the IRS - was out money because of the conduct.

The district court agreed, and sentenced Mr. Register to the high-end of his non-grouped guidelines range - 27 months.

Mr. Register appealed, and the 11th Circuit, in United States v. Register, reversed.

The court of appeals decision tracks closely the language of section 3D1.2 - basically, when the sentencing guidelines range is driven by a loss amount, there is no requirement in the guidelines that the offenses at issue arise out of the same plan or scheme.

So, since there was one victim - the IRS - suffering one harm - the loss of tax revenue - the two different tax crimes group, and Mr. Register goes back for resentencing.

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The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog is published by The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC in Washington, DC. The Kaiser Law Firm represents people who have been charged with federal crimes, are under federal investigation, or have a federal criminal appeal.

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