Fraud is a unique crime as it is one of the very few that rarely has a statute of limitations. In some jurisdictions, the statute doesn’t even begin until the fraud is discovered and law enforcement has an opportunity to evaluate what has happened and perform at least a cursory investigation.
That said, fraud is also a crime that can be very easily misinterpreted to include all manner of unethical actions that in themselves may be dishonest and even malicious but don’t necessarily rise to the level of criminal fraud.
Fraud is the crime of obtaining something of value through deception. Even a non-lawyer can see where confusion can arise. What exactly is “something of value?” Money? Love? Happiness? New shoes? The definition can be different from person to person. One might value a camping trip while another would more likely value an evening reading.
Then there’s deception. The multiplicity of ways one or more people can be deceived is awe-inspiring. In some cases, a person can arrive at the wrong conclusion and accuse someone of deceiving them even if they had no intention of doing so.
When these two vague concepts are combined, they create one of the most confusing and hard to pin down crimes on the books. And if you think charging someone with fraud is a tough task, imagine trying to defend them.
The most valuable two hours in the defense of anyone accused of fraud is when the defendant’s attorney evaluates whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain the charge. In a murder case, the corpus delicti, or evidence of a criminal act, is rather simple. There’s a dead body. There are wounds or other trauma that could be a cause of death. There’s a murder weapon, and so forth.
In a fraud case, unless the prosecution has the defendant stating their intent to deceive the victim, clear evidence of that deception and something obtained that can be universally considered to have value like jewelry, cash or real estate, the chances the defense can attack the charges on the basis the elements of the crime are not present increase dramatically.
The average person is likely to have a far more difficult time with these concepts, as they often escape even sophisticated members of the Bar.
Law or Facts
Fraud is a classic chameleon defense, as it gives defense attorneys wide latitude to focus on the weakest part of the prosecution. Is the defendant dead to rights on the facts? Then the defense will argue those facts don’t meet the definition of “deception” and “value.” Will every member of the jury interpret the evidence as meeting those definitions? Then the defense can argue the defendant had no intent to deceive and therefore no intent to obtain anything of value through deception.
In a criminal trial, a fraud defense is likely to lead to fast-moving litigation and more than a few sidebars and hearings outside the presence of the jury. Since a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt must by needs come down to how the jury interprets the defendant’s intent, if it exists, and their own ideas about what constitutes deception and value, the prosecution will have its work cut out getting all of those disparate opinions lined up well enough to avoid hanging the jury.
It is for this reason a good defense attorney can often steer fraud cases away from trial and towards a favorable deal. Most prosecutors have little appetite for prolonged litigation over opinion.
Finding a defense attorney with experience in criminal fraud is vital, as working within the boundaries of this kind of case is highly valuable. Fraud is definitely a charge no person should even dream of facing alone.