Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Chafin: Fowler has overruled Veal

In U.S. v. Chafin, No. 14-10160 (Oct. 28, 2015), the Court affirmed a conviction of a Georgia sheriff, based on checks he drew from the prison commissary account to buy lottery tickets, for federal program embezzlement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666, but reversed a conviction for obstructing justice by hindering the communication of information about a potential federal offense to federal officials in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3). The Court rejected the argument that there was insufficient evidence that Brooks County, Georgia received more than $10,000 in federal funds, an element of § 666. The Court interpreted the statute to exclude “bona fide salary” type payments by the federal government to an entity in the usual course of business. But the federal payments to Brooks County were not salary payments, but covered operating costs associated with the witness-advocate position in the sheriff’s office. Turning to the obstruction of justice conviction, the Court noted that in Fowler v. U.S. (2011), the Supreme Court held that the government must show that there was a reasonable likelihood that a relevant communication would have been made to a federal officer. Reviewing for plain error, the Court found that Fowler overruled prior Circuit precedent, U.S. v. Veal. Consequently, the district court’s use of this prior Veal standard was reversible error. Had the district court applied the Fowler standard, the trial would have ended in an acquittal.