Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Baptiste: Affirming Tax Fraud Conviction and Sentence Over Various Challenges but Remanding for Allocution

In United States v. Baptiste, No. 16-17175 (Newsom, William Pryor, Branch), the Court affirmed the defendant's tax fraud conviction and sentence, but remanded for the defendant to allocute at sentencing.

First, the Court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 404(b) by refusing to allow the defendant to put on evidence that another individual had duped others into participating similar schemes.  The defendant argued that this evidence would have shown only that individual's capacity to implement the scheme rather than his character or propensity.  The Court concluded that, because the evidence could have reasonably been viewed either as permissible capacity evidence or as impermissible propensity evidence, there was no abuse of discretion.

Second, the Court rejected the defendant's argument that the prosecutor failed to correct false witness testimony that he was a citizen when in fact he was granted citizenship in exchange for testifying against the defendant.  In addition, while a government witness falsely testified about a date, the government was not required to correct it because it was due to mistake or confusion rather than a willful intent to deceive.  And the Court rejected the defendant's argument that the government failed to disclose a cooperation agreement of a testifying witness because it was speculative and the defendant could not show the testimony was material.  The Court also rejected the defendant's argument that the prosecutor mischaracterized evidence at trial during his closing argument.

Third, the defendant argued that the testimony of the brother to a defense witness—that the defendant had told the witness he would give her a car in exchange for favorable testimony—was incorrectly admitted as a statement against interest.  The Court found it unnecessary to decide that question because it found the testimony harmless in light of overwhelming evidence of guilt.

Fourth, the Court concluded that, even if inadmissible hearsay, the same testimony nonetheless bore "sufficient indicia of reliability" for purposes of an obstruction of justice enhancement at sentencing.  And the district court was not required to make express findings on the record that the testimony was reliable because the record as a whole showed that it was.  The Court also upheld sentencing enhancements based on loss amount and the number and vulnerability of the victims.

Finally, the parties agreed that the district court plainly erred by failing to address the defendant personally and give him an opportunity to allocute, even though the court asked "does the defendant wish to address me," and the attorney answered on the defendant's behalf.