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Monday, June 02, 2008

Cueller v. United States: Insufficency of Money Laundering Evidence

Cuellar was driving a Volkswagen Beetle south on State Highway 77 in Texas, approximately 100 miles from the Mexican border. A police officer stopped him due to his erratic driving. Upon confronting him, police observed odd and inconsistent behavior, including that Cueller crossed himself as police conducted their investigation. Searching the vehicle, police found a hidden compartment underneath the floorboard containing $81,000 wrapped in duct tape bundles inside plastic bags, and animal hair was spread in the rear of the vehicle to possibly cover the smell of marijuana. Cuellar was convicted at trial of international money laundering under § 1956(a)(2)(B)(i), which prohibits transportation of illicit funds. He was not charged with bulk cash smuggling. He was sentenced to 78 months imprisonment and three years supervised release, eighteen months more prison time than the maximum punishment available under the bulk cash smuggling statute. The Supreme Court reversed the money laundering conviction in a unanimous decision written by Justice Thomas, holding that the statute under which petitioner was convicted requires proof that the transportation was "designed in whole or in part to conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership, or the control" of the funds. § 1956(a)(2)(B)(i). Although this element does not require proof that the defendant attempted to create the appearance of legitimate wealth, neither can it be satisfied solely by evidence that a defendant concealed the funds during their transport. In this case, the only evidence introduced to prove this element showed that petitioner engaged in extensive efforts to conceal the funds en route to Mexico, and thus his conviction cannot stand." Justice Alito, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy, concurred, clarifying that the government could have proved that once the cash got to Mexico that had the effect of being concealed, but in this case the government failed to produce such evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.