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What Legal Defenses Can Be Used Against Federal Money Laundering Charges?

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 10:07 am

What Legal Defenses Can Be Used Against Federal Money Laundering Charges?

Money laundering is a serious federal crime that can lead to hefty fines and years in prison. But just because someone gets charged with money laundering doesn’t mean they don’t have legal defenses available to them. Here are some of the main legal defenses that can be used against federal money laundering charges:

Challenging the Money Laundering Elements

To convict someone of federal money laundering, the government has to prove all of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt[1]. The main elements are:

  • The funds involved were proceeds of illegal activity (known as the “predicate offense”)
  • The defendant knew the funds were illegal proceeds
  • The defendant conducted a financial transaction with the illegal proceeds
  • The transaction was designed to conceal the source of funds, avoid reporting requirements, or promote illegal activity

If the defense can show the government lacks evidence for any one of these elements, they may be able to get an acquittal. For example, if the funds didn’t actually come from illegal activity, or the defendant didn’t know the source of the funds, the money laundering charge falls apart[2].

The defense may try to show the government is relying on weak circumstantial evidence about the source of funds or the defendant’s knowledge. Without strong direct evidence, reasonable doubt exists.

Attacking the Predicate Offense

As mentioned, money laundering requires that the laundered funds came from a predicate offense – an underlying criminal activity like drug trafficking, fraud, or embezzlement[3].

If the defense can show that the predicate offense never happened or that the defendant wasn’t involved, then the money laundering charge loses its foundation. For example, if a defendant is charged with laundering embezzled funds, but the defense can prove the “embezzlement” was an accounting error, not a crime, the money laundering charge cannot stand.

Arguing Lack of Criminal Intent

Prosecutors have to establish the defendant had knowledge the funds were from illegal activity and intended to conceal the source or nature of the funds[4]. But sometimes money laundering can occur unintentionally or without criminal purpose.

For example, a defendant may show they were acting in good faith reliance on a financial advisor’s instructions when moving money between accounts or entities. Or the defense may argue the financial transactions had a legitimate business purpose other than concealment or promotion of illegal activity. Without evidence of intent to launder funds, the prosecution’s case will fail.

Using the “Source of Funds” Defense

There is a “source of funds” defense that argues just because illegal funds are co-mingled into an account with legal funds, any withdrawal or transfer from that account is not necessarily money laundering[5]. As long as there were sufficient legal funds in the account to cover the transaction, the defense can argue it did not involve the illegal funds.

For example, if $100,000 of illegal funds were deposited into an account that already had $200,000 of legal funds, any subsequent withdrawal of $100,000 or less arguably came from the clean funds, not the dirty funds. But uncertainty over tracing funds may still lead to a conviction.

Challenging Evidence and Witnesses

Like with any criminal charge, evidence and witness credibility is key. The defense will try to exclude any evidence that was obtained improperly or challenge the reliability of witnesses[6]. For example, if evidence was obtained through a questionable search or witness testimony is inconsistent, it may be kept out of court. Without solid evidence tying the defendant to knowledge of illegal activity or intent to conceal funds, a conviction becomes difficult.

Asserting Constitutional Violations

Prosecutors have to play by the rules when investigating and charging money laundering crimes. If they violate a defendant’s constitutional rights such as through improper searches or lack of due process, any evidence obtained improperly may be suppressed. For example, if investigators searched financial records without a warrant or failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, a conviction could be overturned on appeal.

Negotiating a Plea Bargain

Given the complexity of money laundering cases and severity of penalties, many defendants consider attempting to negotiate a plea bargain rather than going to trial. Typical bargains involve pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for dropping the money laundering charges. Or prosecutors may recommend a lighter sentence to the judge.

Of course, pleading guilty means no chance of outright acquittal, so the defense has to weigh options carefully. But a plea bargain may be preferable to potentially decades in prison if convicted on the top counts at trial.

Seeking Dismissal for Outrageous Government Conduct

In rare cases, courts will dismiss charges if the government’s investigation itself amounted to outrageous conduct that violated the defendant’s rights. This is not technically a “defense” but a reason why charges may be dismissed before trial. For example, if investigators improperly coerced or threatened witnesses to get evidence against the defendant, the case could potentially be dismissed.

Using the Ratzlaf Defense

This defense comes from a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case called Ratzlaf v. United States. The Court held that just breaking up deposits to avoid triggering reporting requirements is not enough to prove money laundering. The government also has to show the defendant knew structuring the deposits was itself illegal. This defense argues the defendant did not have sufficient criminal intent.

Highlighting Sentencing Factors

If convicted of money laundering, the defense will emphasize mitigating factors at sentencing that may warrant a more lenient punishment. For example, no criminal record, cooperation with authorities, or a minor role in the offense could result in a below-guidelines sentence. While not a complete defense, it may help reduce prison time.

Money laundering charges are serious, but experienced criminal defense attorneys know how to exploit weaknesses in the government’s case. Whether through suppressing evidence, undermining witness credibility, or presenting affirmative defenses, many viable strategies exist to achieve an acquittal or at least mitigate penalties if convicted. Anyone facing money laundering charges should consult with a lawyer immediately to start building their defense.

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