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United States of America v. Asya M. Richardson

September 23, 2011


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 2-05-cr-00440-018 District Judge: The Honorable R. Barclay Surrick

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge.


Argued July 14, 2011

Before: RENDELL, SMITH, and ROTH, Circuit Judges


Alton Coles was the leader of a Philadelphia drug distribution ring responsible for selling a staggering amount of both cocaine and cocaine base (also known as crack) from 1998 to 2005. The defendant in this appeal, Asya Richardson, was Coles' fiancee. In the summer of 2005, the couple used drug money to purchase a new home. Not long after, a federal grand jury returned a series of indictments charging Coles and others with various drug trafficking and firearms offenses. Eventually the grand jury returned a fourth superseding indictment charging Richardson with money laundering. The government's theory was that, in the course of purchasing the new home, Richardson had participated in financial transactions knowing that they were designed to conceal the criminal origin of the money involved. The case proceeded to trial, and at the close of the government's case, Richardson moved for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support a guilty verdict. The court denied the motion and Richardson was convicted. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the evidence is insufficient to sustain Richardson's conviction. We will therefore vacate the conviction and remand for entry of a judgment of acquittal.

I. Facts

In addition to being a drug dealer, Coles was the CEO and owner of Take Down Records, a recording label that produced rap and hip-hop music. He also threw weekly parties at Palmer's, a nightclub located in downtown Philadelphia. Coles' drug activity generated substantial revenues, but his legitimate businesses were not profitable. Take Down Records operated at a loss, and the nightclub parties broke even (though they produced substantial cash receipts in the form of cover charges).

In the summer of 2002, Coles and Richardson met and began dating. The relationship blossomed into a serious romance, and by December 2002, the two were engaged. But within a year of the engagement, the couple was involved in a domestic dispute causing Richardson to flee their apartment. She went to court seeking a restraining order, and in support of her application, submitted an affidavit in which she averred (among other things) that Coles ―is a big time drug hustler.‖*fn1 Despite their difficulties, Coles and Richardson eventually reconciled.

In February 2005, Coles and Richardson decided to purchase a home together. They picked out a new house located in Mullica Hill, New Jersey. The purchase price for the home was $466,190. Coles and Richardson signed a purchase contract with the homebuilder, and Coles issued two checks from his personal checking account at Citizens Bank--one for $10,000 and another for $30,000--as a deposit towards the home's purchase price.

Coles and Richardson applied for a joint mortgage through the homebuilder's lender affiliate, NVR Mortgage Company. In the application, Coles claimed to earn $100,000 per year as the CEO of Take Down Records, and Richardson truthfully stated that she made $22,800 annually as a customer service representative at Bank of America. The mortgage application was rejected because Coles had poor credit.

NVR referred the couple to Pine Creek Mortgage Services, a ―last resort‖ mortgage company. Pine Creek reviewed Coles' credit history and concluded that it would not be able to secure a joint mortgage for the couple. It determined, however, that Richardson had good credit and that it could probably obtain an individual mortgage in her name. At Pine Creek's suggestion, the couple removed Coles' name from the home purchase contract and Richardson completed an application for a ―stated income‖ mortgage.*fn2 The application vastly overstated Richardson's income. It indicated that she had three jobs and that she earned over $110,000 per year. Pine Creek nevertheless approved the application, and settlement on the house was scheduled for July 29, 2005.

Besides the $40,000 already paid to the homebuilder, the couple planned to put an additional $74,000 down on the home at settlement. In the days leading up to the settlement, Coles made a number of cash deposits into Take Down Records' business account at Citizens Bank. He later transferred the funds to his personal checking account to use towards the down payment.

The day of settlement was marked by a flurry of banking activity. At 12:08 p.m., a $9,800 cash deposit was made into Coles' and Richardson's joint checking account at PNC Bank. This deposit took place at a PNC branch located in Philadelphia. At 1:12 p.m., Coles made a $9,140 cash deposit into Take Down Records' business account. The funds were later transferred to Coles' personal checking account and used towards the down payment. Half an hour later, at the same bank branch, Coles deposited $9,200 in cash directly into his personal checking account. At 3:33 p.m., Richardson made a $9,200 cash deposit into the couple's joint checking account. This deposit was made at a PNC branch located in Stratford, New Jersey, which was near the location of ...

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