11th Circuit Suggests Limits for Search Warrants of Social Media Accounts

In United States v. Blake, No. 15-13395 (11th Cir. Aug. 21, 2017), the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently examined the constitutionality of a search warrant for a defendant’s entire Facebook account. The warrant at issue required Facebook to hand over the full contents of the defendant’s account and then to let law enforcement agents mine the account for evidence of the defendant’s alleged prostitution ring. The court indicated that such a broad warrant–one lacking a time frame or description of the particular data sought–may be insufficiently particular to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.

However, the court ultimately did not have to decide the particularity question, as it determined that law enforcement executed the warrant in good faith, and, therefore, the good faith exception to suppressing evidence applied. Nonetheless, the court stated that, in the future, law enforcement should specifically identify the data they seek, rather then requesting the contents of an entire social media account.

Blake shows the complexities of applying the Fourth Amendment to the modern social media landscape, as well as the importance of having an experienced criminal defense attorney to make creative Fourth Amendment arguments.

Obstructing justice by filing a false answer in a civil case?

This issue was recently addressed in United States v. Liew, No. 14-10367 (9th Cir. May 5, 2017). In Liew, prior to being investigated by the FBI for a variety of crimes centered on the theft of trade secrets from DuPont, the defendants were sued by DuPont for the misappropriation of trade secrets. The defendants filed an answer stating that “they never wrongfully obtained or possessed any” DuPont trade secretes nor “misappropriated any information from DuPont.”

The defendants were later indicted for a variety of crimes related to the theft of trade secrets from DuPont. One count alleged that the defendants conspired to obstruct an official proceeding in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1512(k) by agreeing to file an answer to DuPont’s civil complaint that contained a false statement. At trial, the defendants were convicted of that count.

On review, the Ninth Circuit reversed the defendants’ conspiracy to obstruct justice convictions. The Court reasoned that the defendants’ statement in their civil answer that they “never misappropriated any information from DuPont or any of its locations” was “tantamount to a general denial of legal liability.” The Court distinguished such a legal denial from an overt factual false statement, and held that making a general, legal denial of guilt did not constitute obstruction of justice. However, the Court stopped short of holding that filing an answer in a civil case can never constitute obstruction of justice. As such, Liew illustrates that it can be helpful to seek counsel from an experienced criminal defense lawyer while navigating a civil case.

Tax Tip of the Day: Tax Return Preparers Must Adequately Monitor Their Employees

A federal appeals court recently upheld Hugo Jean-Joseph’s conviction for eleven counts of willfully aiding or assisting in the preparation of false or fraudulent income tax returns presented to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7602(2). Mr. Jean-Joseph was the president and owner of a tax return preparation company. The government alleged the company falsely overstated its customers’ deductions to the IRS to generate larger refund amounts. The company would then give its customers a refund check in an amount smaller than what was submitted by the IRS. This allowed the company to skim extra money off the top and acquire a fraudulent profit. At trial, Mr. Jean-Joseph argued that because he never personally prepared any customers’ tax returns, he could not be guilty of the charged crimes.

On appeal, the court rejected Mr. Jean-Joseph’s argument. In doing so, the court noted that the use of Mr. Jean-Joseph’s Electronic Filing Identification Numbers (EFINs) to file each of the fraudulent tax returns supported an inference of his involvement in their creation. The court specifically accepted the IRS’s position that the owner of an EFIN “is responsible for the maintenance of the EFIN and all of the returns that are filed with the IRS through the EFIN.”

Although the court pointed to additional circumstantial evidence to uphold Mr. Jean-Joseph’s conviction, the opinion makes clear that it is proper for a jury to hold the owner of an EFIN responsible for the criminal activities of their employees. It is therefore critical that an individual adequately monitor and supervise the preparation of tax returns filed under their EFIN. A copy of the opinion may be found here.