United States v. Sperrazza: An Appropriate Use Of Federal Asset Forfeiture As Criminal Punishment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in United States v. Sperrazza is the most recent in a line of federal circuit court decisions to reject the contention that the government must prove the existence of a “cash hoard” to sustain a structuring prosecution. In an opinion authored by D.C. Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, who was sitting by designation, Sperrazza affirmed the conviction of an anesthesiologist on three counts of tax evasion, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201, and two counts of structuring currency transactions, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5324(a)(3). While this case implicates thorny asset-forfeiture questions, the result reached here should not trouble civil libertarians who are concerned by abuses in other cases.

In recent years, the government has made aggressive use of asset forfeiture laws in cases involving strong patterns of structuring-like behaviors. Confronted by harsh criticisms (and congressional pressure) the government altered course. Both the Treasury and Justice Departments issued policy statements limiting the circumstances when they will use their asset seizure and forfeiture powers in structuring cases. Moreover, the criticisms that led the government to make these course corrections primarily targeted civil asset seizure and forfeitures. Here, in contrast, the government obtained a criminal conviction by proving its case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This was not a “smash and grab” asset seizure or forfeiture; the forfeiture was properly a part of the punishment for a related criminal offense.

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