U.S. v. Owen – Guilty Verdict Reversed On Appeal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently reversed the guilty verdict handed down in U.S. v. Owen to a city zoning inspector convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for issuing certificates of occupancy on four new homes. brownenvelopmoneybribe.jpg

Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know that to have a guilty verdict overturned by an appellate court is the exception. That’s why it’s critical to secure a solid defense team in the early stages of a criminal investigation, if possible, prior to arrest.

Appeals are typically generated on issues of law and challenges that the lower court in some way abused its discretion. Even when an appellate court rules in favor of the defendant, trial verdicts are rarely reversed. Instead, usually some aspect of the case – whether a sentencing error or an interpretation of law – is remanded back to the lower court for a closer look.

As this case shows, it’s not that appeals are never successful. However, it’s always wise to make sure your attorney is qualified with proven experience before you move forward in the first case. Here, the defendant had been a zoning inspector in Chicago and was responsible for enforcing city ordinances and approving architectural plans for new constructions of single-family homes. If a new home met all the specifications, it was to a receive a certificate of occupancy. Without that certificate, a structure can’t be used as a residence.

According to court records, the contractor had allegedly previously accepted bribes from an acquaintance of his working as an “expeditor” on behalf of certain developers. Then, the expeditor became a confidential informant for federal investigators. After that, the informant staged two incidents in which he stated he needed expedited certificates of occupancy for two residences. The acquaintance later met him on the side of the road and paid him $600 in cash, and a certificate was issued, despite the fact that the homes hadn’t actually undergone inspection. A similar transaction was arranged a short time later.

Soon after, the inspector was arrested by the FBI on two counts of federal program bribery in violation of 18 U.S.C. 666(a)(1)(B). A jury subsequently convicted him and he was sentenced to one year in prison.

However, the inspector appealed the verdict, saying there was insufficient evidence to support it. The court reviewed whether there was no rational trier of fact, when viewed in the light most favorable to the government, which is the standard upon appeal.

At particular issue here was the statute itself, which requires that a conviction must be the result of federally-funded workers soliciting or accepting anything of value in connection with a business transaction or series of transactions over $5,000. The inspector’s defense conceded that prosecutors had proven all but one element of the case – that he accepted bribes that were worth at least $5,000.

The government, in turn, conceded that the certificate of occupancy doesn’t have an easily-quantifiable value. We know that the valuation of the actual bribes accepted were far short of the $5,000 threshold, but prosecutors attempted to say that the value of the homes themselves and/or construction costs should be considered.

However, the appellate panel ruled that, based on case law, this did not fit the requirement of the statute.

This, of course, is a technicality, but with the burden of proof in criminal cases placed upon the government, sometimes that’s all it takes. At the trial level, your defense attorney must understand each element of the crimes of which you are accused and must force the prosecutor to attempt to prove each and every one of them.

If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.

Additional Resources:
U.S. v. Owens, United States court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Illinois, Justia Case Files
More Blog Entries:
U.S. v. Johnson: Sentencing Enhancements Require Additional Evidence, Oct. 15, 2012, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

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