RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay
DOCKET NO.: 06-1456
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
CITATION: 553 US 550 (2008)
GRANTED: Oct 15, 2007
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 02, 2008
Jerry V. Beard - on behalf of the Petitioner
Lisa H. Schertler - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
Humberto Fidel Regaldo Cuellar was apprehended in 2004 driving a Volkwagen Beetle crawling 30 miles below the speed limit on a main artery through Texas to Mexico. When police pulled Cuellar over, they discovered that he had logged about 1,000 miles in the past two days stopping in major cities along the way for just hours each time. When questioned, Cuellar acted nervously; he later turned over a large roll of cash that smelled like marijuana. When police examined the car, they found drill marks suggesting tampering with the gas tank, as well as mud splashings and animal hair typical of efforts to conceal the existence of contraband. Police found $83,000 in cash in a secret compartment beneath the floorboard. Cuellar was convicted of money laundering, but the appeals court overturned the conviction. The court ruled that the federal money laundering statute required the government to prove that Cuellar was attempting to portray the money he carried as legitimate wealth, rather than merely showing that he tried to hide it.
Does the federal money laundering statute require the government to prove that the defendant was trying to portray ill-gotten gains as legitimate wealth, or must prosecutors show only that the defendant was attempting to conceal criminal proceeds?
Media for Regalado Cuellar v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 2008 in Regalado Cuellar v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 02, 2008 in Regalado Cuellar v. United States
This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Petitioner was arrested after the car he was driving toward the Mexican Boarder was stopped and searched.
Police found nearly $81,000 in cash hidden in a secret compartment in the vehicle and in addition to the evidence that petitioner was involved in drug trafficking found other indications that he had taken elaborate steps to avoid detection of the money.
After a jury trial, petitioner was convicted of violating the provision of the federal money laundering statute that prohibits the transportation of illicit funds across the boarder while knowing that the transportation was designed to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership or control of the money.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed his conviction.
Petitioner raises the same two arguments here that the Court of Appeals rejected.
First, that a money laundering conviction requires proof that he attempted to create the appearance of legitimate wealth and second, that the statute cannot be satisfied by proof that petitioner merely hid the funds in transit.
In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
First, although we agree that money laundering may be commonly understood as making illicit gains appear legitimate, we must be guided by the statutory text and here it contains no such limitation.
We also reject petitioner's argument that this requirement is inherent in the statutory elements.
Concealing or disguising one of the listed attributes would not necessarily make the funds appear more legitimate nor would disclosing one of the attributes necessarily reveal the funds as legitimate or illegitimate, that is.
Second, we agree that petitioner -- with petitioner that evidence of secretive efforts during transportation, even the elaborate tactics used here is not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that petitioner knew that the transportation itself was designed to conceal or disguise the funds, nature, location, source, ownership, or control.
We read the design to conceal or disguise element to mean that a defendant must have known that the transportation was intended to achieve the effect of concealing or disguising a list of attributes of the funds.
Although the secretive manner in which petitioner transported the cash may be probative of his knowledge that the transportation was so designed, it is not itself sufficient proof.
The only direct evidence the Government introduced as to the purpose of the transportation was that it was designed to compensate the leaders of the drug trafficking organization which plainly says nothing about a design to conceal or disguise a listed attribute.
Nor did the Government introduce evidence from which petitioner's knowledge of a purpose to conceal or disguise a listed attribute could be inferred.
On this evidence the jury could reasonably have found all of the elements of the statute satisfied beyond the reasonable doubt.
Justice Alito has filed the concurring opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy have joined.