Of Laundering and Legal Fees: The Implications of United States v. Blair for Criminal Defense Attorneys who Accept Potentially Tainted Funds
“In the common understanding, money laundering occurs when money derived from criminal activity is placed into a legitimate business in an effort to cleanse the money of criminal taint.” 18 U.S.C. § 1957, however, prohibits a much broader range of conduct. Any person who “knowingly engages” in a monetary transaction involving over $10,000 of “criminally derived property” can be charged with money laundering under § 1957.
Because § 1957 eliminates the requirement found in other money laundering statutes that the government prove an attempt to commit a crime or to conceal the proceeds of a crime, § 1957 “applies to the most open,
above‐board transaction,” such as a criminal defense attorney receiving payment for representation. In response to pressure from commentators, Congress passed an amendment two years after § 1957’s enactment defining the term “monetary transaction” so as to exclude “any transaction necessary to preserve a person’s right to representation as guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Constitution.”
The statutory safe harbor found in § 1957(f)(1) has successfully immunized defense attorneys from money laundering prosecutions. However, United States v. Blair raised concerns among the criminal defense bar because of its holding that an attorney‐defendant was not entitled to protection under § 1957(f)(1). In Blair, an attorney‐defendant was convicted of violating § 1957 for using $20,000 in drug proceeds to purchase two $10,000 bank checks to retain attorneys for associates of his client. Noting that Sixth Amendment rights are personal to the accused and that Blair used “someone else’s money” to hire counsel for others, the Fourth Circuit held that his actions fell “far beyond the scope of the Sixth Amendment” and were not protected by the safe harbor. In his strongly‐worded dissent, Chief Judge Traxler criticized the court for “nullif[ying] the § 1957(f)(1) exemption and creat[ing] a circuit split.”
This Case Note discusses the implications of Blair for the criminal defense attorney who accepts potentially tainted funds and proposes a solution to ameliorate its unintended consequences. First, Part I provides relevant background information by discussing the money laundering statutory framework, the criticisms leveled at the framework as it was written, the Congressional response to that criticism, and § 1957(f)(1)’s application up until Blair. Next, Part II describes the Blair decision in detail and examines its implications. Part III then proposes a novel solution to the problems it created. Finally, the Case Note concludes with a brief word of practical advice for the criminal defense bar.
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