Friday, October 26, 2007

Right on the money

In all the media publicity that surrounds the Supreme Court whenever it evaluates the constitutionality of a federal or state statute, the Court's more mundane role is often overlooked. Many people seem to forget that the Court spends a great deal of time simply clarifying federal statutes to resolve circuit splits or streamline court proceedings. However, one such case this term probably says more about the state of the union than any constitutional review case.

In July 2004, Humberto Cuellar was driving through Texas and headed towards Mexico when he was stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. While talking with Cuellar, the officer noticed bulges in his pockets, so she performed a Terry pat-down. The bulges turned out to be rolls of $10 and $20 bills that smelled of marijuana. The car was searched, and $83,000 in U.S. currency was found beneath the back floorboard. He was charged with and convicted of money laundering and sentenced to 78 months in prison. The conviction was ultimately upheld by an en banc review of the Fifth Circuit, and Cuellar has now appealed to the Supreme Court.

There's no constitutional issue here, so all the Court is doing is interpreting the relevant statute. In this case, the federal statute defines money laundering as transportation designed to “conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership, or the control” of the proceeds of illegal activity. Short of violating the Constitution in some way, Congress can define money laundering as it sees fit. As is frequently the case, though, Congress has not clearly defined the matter, so the highest court in the land must figure out if "conceal" means physically hiding money or if it requires creating the appearance of legitimacy (as it does in the common understanding). In the grand scheme of things, this is pedestrian statutory interpretation and not too exciting.

This case does say something about American society and the War on Drugs, though. It has now reached the point that carrying a large amount of cash is a crime. Just carrying the cash can result in the money being seized and a court hearing where the possessor must prove by a proponderance of the evidence that the money is legitimate (see this civil asset forfeiture case for an example). When cash is coupled with erratic travel plans and contradictory justifications, it's money laundering and can result in 20 years in prison.

Cuellar is probably guilty of trying to smuggle money to Mexico so it could later be laundered. It only takes a light perusal of the facts to come to that conclusion. However, taking over $10,000 from the country without declaring it is already a crime (and at a minimum, the government will likely seize all the money). Should be he guilty of money laundering, though? Should innocently possessing large amounts of cash be grounds for seizing it and forcing the owner to prove its innocence? Should suspiciously possessing cash be grounds for up to 20 years in prison? Some questions to ponder as the Supreme Court quietly considers a routine statutory matter.


At 1:45 PM, October 26, 2007 , Blogger Vernunft said...

Well, there's something we certainly don't hear about - if we're arresting people for having cash, have the drug lords won the war? Obviously, in order to deter drug use, we need to hit all aspects of the drug trade. When it comes to executing murderers who kill over drugs, fine; when it comes to banning pipes and making people piss in a cup every time they want a job, well, what are we doing? So yeah, the War keeps buggering on.


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