United States v. Lane

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Cranston Police Station

DOCKET NO.: 84-744
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 474 US 438 (1986)
ARGUED: Oct 09, 1985
DECIDED: Jan 27, 1986

Bruce M. Kuhlik - on behalf of the United States
Bruce Neil Kuhlik - for the U.S
Clifford W. Brown - on behalf of James C. Lane and Dennis R. Lane

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Lane

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 09, 1985 in United States v. Lane

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in United States against Lane and the consolidated case.

Mr. Kuhlik, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Bruce Neil Kuhlik:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, the defendants in this case were each charged in five counts of a six-count indictment alleging mail fraud, conspiracy, and perjury in connection with three arson for profit schemes.

After a joint jury trial, each defendant was convicted on every count in which he was charged.

The Court of Appeals held that one of the counts was improperly joined with the other five.

It reversed the convictions and remanded for new trials on all counts without determining whether either defendant was prejudiced in any respect by the misjoinder.

Two questions are before the Court, first, whether misjoinder is an exception to the rule that reviewing courts have a duty to determine whether any error at trial was harmless, and second, whether the evidence was sufficient to support the defendant's convictions for mail fraud in connection with their arson of a duplex.

We think it is plain that misjoinder, which is a comparatively common garden variety violation of the rules of criminal procedure does not fit within the extremely narrow category of errors that are excepted from harmless error inquiry.

We also submit that it is equally clear that the mailing of insurance forms and fabricated invoices to the defrauded insurance company furthered the defendants' scheme to defraud within the meaning of the mail fraud statute.

The defendants, J.C. and Dennis Lane, are father and son.

Count 1 of the indictment charged J.C. Lane alone with the 1979 arson of his failing restaurant business.

The sufficiency of the evidence supporting this count is undisputed.

Counts 2 through 4 charged both defendants with mail fraud in connection with the arson of a duplex building that they had purchased for $500 and insured for $35,000.

The building was burned pursuant to their direction in early May of 1980.

Shortly thereafter, Dennis Lane submitted a proof of loss form to the insurance adjuster which stated quite fraudulently that he had played no part in the fire and was making no attempt to deceive the insurance company.

At the same time, he received a draft payment of $7,000 with which to begin repair work on the building.

The insurance adjuster later mailed that proof of loss form to the insurance company headquarters and it was this mailing that was charged in Count 2 of the indictment.

As the summer of 1980 progressed, the insurance company made additional payments totalling $5,000 to the Lanes with which to continue repairs, and the defendants continued to submit fraudulent forms to the insurance adjuster.

Additional forms were mailed by the adjuster to the company headquarters in August of 1980.

It was this mailing that was charged in Count 3.

Finally, the insurance company settled the claim completely with a payment of $12,250 on September 16th of 1980.

Two days later, the insurance adjuster mailed fraudulent invoices that the defendants had fabricated to support their repair claim to the company.

It was this final mailing on September 18th of 1980 that was charged in Count 4.

These are the counts whose sufficiency is before the Court.

Count 5 charged both defendants with conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with their planned arson of a phony flower shop, and Count 6 charged Dennis Lane alone with perjury before a grand jury that was investigating the flower shop scheme.

The defendants were tried jointly.

The trial lasted six days.

The government produced over two dozen witnesses and over 100 exhibits.

The defendants countered chiefly by character witnesses and Dennis Lane's denials that he had done anything wrong.

The jury convicted on all counts.