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United States v. Hall

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
EARL LAFAYETTE HALL, III

          MEMORANDUM

          SYLVIA H. RAMBO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the court is Defendant Earl Lafayette Hall, III's counseled motion to vacate (Doc. 206)[1] and pro se Rule 33 motion for new trial (Doc. 204), following his trial and guilty jury verdict on twelve counts of mail fraud, ten counts of money laundering, four counts of aggravated identity theft, one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. For the reasons stated herein, both motions will be denied.

         I. Relevant Facts and Procedural History

         On November 9, 2016, Hall was charged in a thirty-one count Second Superseding Indictment made up of: twelve counts of mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; ten counts of money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i); seven counts of aggravated identity theft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1); one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349; and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). (Doc. 63.) Defendants were accused of perpetrating a scheme between January 2013 and June 2015 that involved submitting counterfeit United States military discharge certificates bearing the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers of eleven individuals to agencies in various states in order to fraudulently collect unemployment compensation benefits for ex-service members.

         Trial commenced on March 6, 2017. During trial, Hall moved for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 on all counts except Count 28. The court granted the motion with respect to Counts 25 and 27 for aggravated identity theft, but denied the motion as to all other counts. On March 10, 2017, the jury found Hall guilty of mail fraud in Counts 1 through 12; money laundering in Counts 13 through 22; aggravated identity theft as to Brandon Abbott, Bryce Good, Shawnta Williams, and Charles Campbell in Counts 23, 24, 26, and 28; Count 30 for conspiracy to commit mail fraud; and Count 31 for conspiracy to commit money laundering. (Doc. 131.) Hall was acquitted of Count 29.

         At trial, the Government introduced unemployment compensation benefits for ex-service members (“UCX”) claims submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (“PA L&I”) under the identities of Brandon Abbott, Bryce Good, Shawnta Williams, and Charles Campbell, which included military discharge certificates titled “DD Form 214.” (Gov. Exs. 4, 5, 7, & 9.) Testimony at trial established that an individual can apply for UCX benefits by going into a PA L&I office, via the internet, or by calling a call center. (Trial Tr. Mar. 6, 2017, at pp. 157-58.) The DD Form 214 can then be provided to PA L&I by fax, email, or mail. (Id. at 154, 159.) The individual receiving benefits then submits biweekly claims through the internet, by calling the Telephone Automated System, or by speaking to a representative over the phone. (Id. at 160.)

         Brandan Abbott verified his date of birth and social security number on the UCX claims, but noted that his first name was misspelled and middle initial was incorrect. (Trial Tr. Mar. 7, 2017, at pp. 42-45.) Bryce Good and Charles Campbell verified their dates of birth and social security numbers on the UCX claims, but also testified that their middle initials were incorrect. (Id. at 55, 58-59, 66-67.) As to Shawnta Williams, the Government introduced a certified California Department of Motor Vehicles driver's license in the name of Shawnta Denise Williams with a date of birth of April 16, 1986, which corresponded with the UCX claims submitted in that name. (Gov. Exs. 7 & 53; Trial Tr. Mar. 8, 2017, at pp. 70-71.)

         Desiree Ryman, Unemployment Specialist II for PA L&I, testified that changes made to forms for Brandon Abbott were completed via the internet and payments were first received by debit card, but eventually changed to direct deposit. (Trial Tr. Mar. 6, 2017, at pp. 163, 169-73.) Bryce Good's application was also submitted via the internet, with changes made over the phone, and payments received by direct deposit. (Id. at 174, 180-81.) Similarly, Shawnta Williams' claim was submitted via the internet, as well as faxed several days later, with payments received by debit card, direct deposit, and later paper checks. (Id. at 186-87.) Lastly, Charles Campbell's claim was paid by check and mailed. (Id. at 192.)

         Special Agent Syreeta Scott (“SA Scott”) of the United States Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General testified that she interviewed Blunt on March 3, 2016, at which time Blunt admitted to posing as Shawnta Williams during the June 25, 2014 call. (Trial Tr. Mar. 8, 2017, at p. 112.) Further, Blunt stipulated that she made the June 25, 2014 call. (Gov. Ex. 100.) During direct-examination, Blunt testified that Hall communicated to her that Shawnta Williams was not a real person and that her family would be physically harmed if she did not make the phone call posing as Shawnta Williams. (Trial Tr. Mar. 9, 2017, at pp. 57-59.) However, on cross-examination, Blunt admitted she told SA Scott during her interview on March 3, 2016, that Hall informed her that Shawnta Williams was his cousin. (Id. at 76-77.)

         II. Counseled Motion to Vacate Counts 23, 24, 26 and 28

         A. Legal Standard

         When assessing a motion for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Rule 290, the district court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution to determine “whether any rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the available evidence.” United States v. Bobb, 471 F.3d 491, 494 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing United States v. Smith, 294 F.3d 473, 476 (3d Cir. 2002)). The standard for granting a motion for judgment of acquittal based on insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction is quite stringent. United States v. Soto, 539 F.3d 191, 194 (3d Cir. 2008). The defendant bears a heavy burden of demonstrating that relief is appropriate, and the granting of relief under Rule 29 is “confined to cases where the prosecution's failure is clear.” United States v. Leon, 739 F.2d 885, 891 (3d Cir. 1984) (citing Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1, 17 (1978)). Indeed, where the challenge to a jury verdict is based on the sufficiency of the evidence produced at trial, the court “must be ever vigilant . . . not to usurp the role of the jury” by weighing the evidence or making credibility determinations, or by substituting its judgment for that of the jury. Mercado, 610 F.3d at 845; see also United States v. Flores, 454 F.3d 149, 154 (3d Cir. 2006). Relief is only appropriate “if no reasonable juror could accept the evidence as sufficient to support the conclusion of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Coleman, 811 F.2d 804, 807 (3d Cir. 1987) (quoting United States v. Campbell, 702 F.2d 262, 264 (D.C. Cir. 1983)). Stated another way, the court must determine whether a reasonable jury believing the government's evidence could find beyond a reasonable doubt that the government proved all of the elements of the offenses.

         B. Discussion

         Hall sets forth three arguments in his counseled motion to vacate: (1) the conviction on Counts 23 and 24 should be set aside because the Government did not prove that Hall used, or caused to be used, the mails in furtherance of aggravated identity theft; (2) the Government did not prove Shawnta Williams was a real person so the guilty verdict for Count 26 should be vacated; and (3) the convictions on all aggravated identity theft counts should be set aside because the Government presented no evidence that Hall knew the means of identification belonged to real people. The court will address each argument in turn.

         1. Proof of mailings

         Hall first argues that the Government did not prove that he knowingly transferred, possessed, or used, without lawful authority, a means of identification of Brandon Abbott and Bryce Good during, or in relation to, mail fraud. (Doc. 207, p. 6.) Because the Government did not present evidence that Hall used the mails or caused the mails to be used for Brandon Abbott or Bryce Good, Hall contends there is no evidence to support the aggravated identity theft convictions for these individuals. (Id. at 6-7.) Specifically, he avers that Ms. Ryman's testimony supports this claim because submissions and changes made to Brandon Abbott and Bryce Good's claims were made via the internet, or by telephone, and payment was received by debit card or direct deposit, none of which involve the mail. (Id.)

         The Government asserts that the mail fraud alleged in the Second Superseding Indictment encompassed the submission of false UCX claims to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and Utah under the identities of eleven individuals between January 2013 and June 2015. (Doc. 216, p. 3 of 14.) The Indictment alleged one master scheme, rather than separate schemes for each UCX claim, with the submission of multiple false UCX claims under multiple identities. Although there were twelve mailings set forth in furtherance of the scheme to defraud, the Government chose to charge mailings of UCX benefit checks for only one of the claimants, Charles Campbell. The ...


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