By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Mail and wire fraud are a frequent allegation in federal prosecutions. The lynchpin of these charges is the utilization of interstate commerce to further whatever scheme the government is alleging is taking place. The US Government obviously runs the postal service and heavily regulates other private postal carriers – and they also regulate interstate communications through instruments such as phones, fax machines and computers.
There are basically two components to both: a fraudulent scheme of some sort and then using the mail and/or wire as a furtherance to the scheme. The Department of Justice has issued the following guidelines for mail fraud in 18 U.S.C. Section 1341 and you can read it here. You can read the DOJ guidelines for Wire Fraud here, 18 U.S.C. Section 1343.
Why Does the Federal Government Care About the Mail So Much?
Because it gives them jurisdiction and because it allows them to have greater leverage in their prosecutions.
Mail and/or wire fraud prosecutions can often be a means to an end. Let’s say the government thinks there is an illegal scheme of someone selling fake widgets in a newspaper ad. It’s obviously a crime – but it may just be a State level offense. But if that person is receiving payments in the mail, it allows the Federal government to step in and prosecute if they want.
Mail and wire fraud prosecutions also allows the government to potentially charge additional persons as conspirators if they choose if they had a part in the over-all scheme.
What is the Punishment for Mail or Wire Fraud?
The federal sentencing guidelines dictate potential punishment – as with all federal offenses. The statutory punishment is punishment by fine and up to 20 years confinement, but this range is very deceptive. Mail and wire fraud are often brought in multiple counts and often along with other charges. The sentencing calculation will be unique in every case.
Are There Any Defenses?
You can always contest the search or manner in which the government attained the evidence. If it was an illegal search you may be entitled to utilize the exclusionary rule to throw the evidence out of court. Often intercepted mail or wire communications need federal authorization such as a search warrant. The government is pretty good at this sort of stuff – but it’s always worth examining and evaluating.
If you had a good faith belief representations made by another person were true – it can be a defense if you are alleged to be a conspirator in mail or wire fraud. But you can’t be willfully blind – that is – you can’t heavily suspect something is amiss and cross your fingers hoping what you were doing wasn’t helping do something illegal.
If you’re a minor player in the scheme – and were so minor as to not be “material” to the scheme, then this is a defense too.
You can also provide “substantial assistance” to the government as a way to lessen the potential penalties or avoid prosecution. Providing assistance to the government isn’t necessarily a defense – but it can help you avoid or lessen charges in any event.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is recognized as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.