Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire – Criminal Defense Lawyer

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is the federal appellate court for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has found that the loss amount in a fraud case must be calculated based on the actual loss inflicted on the victim. Despite suggestions in the commentary to the sentencing guidelines, loss means actual loss – not the intended, hypothetical loss that a defendant may have attempted to cause. This will drastically reduce the guideline range for sentencing purposes for many federal criminal defendants.

In this case, a jury convicted Banks of wire fraud, and the District Court sentenced him to 104 months’ incarceration and three years’ supervised release. On appeal, Banks argued multiple issues, but the issue of significance was whether the District Court erred in applying the loss enhancement, USSG §2B1.1, to the fraud guideline in the United States Sentencing Guidelines because there was no “actual loss.”

The Third Circuit concluded that the loss enhancement in the Guideline’s application notes impermissibly expands the word “loss” to include both intended loss and actual loss. Thus, the District Court erred when it applied the loss enhancement because Banks’s crimes caused no actual loss.

The facts of United States v. Banks

In January 2016, a federal grand jury indicted Frederick Banks for wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and false statements. The wire fraud charges related to interlocking schemes carried out by Banks to fraudulently gain the money and property of others in relation to the FOREX.COM international exchange system by submitting phony registration information for himself and then using those registrations to execute bogus trades that would drop money into bank accounts that he had set up.

How do you calculate loss in federal fraud cases?

 Banks was eventually convicted. He proceeded to sentencing. Before issuing a sentence in a federal case, the district judge must always carefully calculate the applicable sentencing guidelines. In fraud and theft cases, the guidelines are based very heavily on the amount of loss in question. Thus, stealing a small amount can lead to a recommended sentence of federal supervised release or a short jail sentence, while stealing a large amount can lead to a recommendation of an incredibly long amount of prison time. The issue becomes complicated because the definition of loss is not so clear. In this case, the issue was whether loss means the amount that the victims actually lost or instead included the amount that Banks tried to steal.

In computing a sentencing range, Banks’s offense level under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, as calculated by the district judge, included a special offense characteristic for the attempted loss Banks intended to inflict on Gain Capital. The attempted loss, based on fraudulent deposits, was $324,000. Therefore, the base offense level was increased by 12 levels because the attempted loss was greater than $250,000 but less than $550,000. USSG §2B1.1(b)(1)(G) (As a general rule, loss is the greater of actual loss or intended loss, pursuant to Application Note 3 to the sentencing guidelines).

The 12-level increase raised Banks’s adjusted offense level from 7 to 19. During sentencing, the District Court explained that the Sentencing Guidelines defined loss to not only include the actual loss, but to also include the intended loss. And the application notes indicate that the intended loss counts for purposes of calculating the loss amount even if it’s determined to be improbable or impossible that such a loss could have occurred. In this case, the victim suffered $0 in actual losses. The district court, however, used the intended loss amount, which was much higher than $0.

Recently, however, the Courts of Appeals have begun to question whether the application notes, which are essentially comments to the sentencing guidelines, are binding, or whether the court should be limited to using the guideline itself.

The district court used the intended loss figure, and the defendant appealed. On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded for a new sentencing, finding that loss means actual less. The Court of Appeals relied on Kisor v. Wilkie and Auer v. Robbins in interpreting the Guidelines. Under Kisor, a court must exhaust all the “traditional tools” of construction and consider the “text, structure, history, and purpose of a regulation.” Only then does a court apply Auer, which requires courts to defer to the Sentencing Commission’s commentary for a Guideline unless that interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the Guideline.

The Court used a “plain text” analysis to see if there was ambiguity in the way the section was written. The Guideline does not mention “actual” versus “intended” loss; that distinction appears only in the commentary. That absence alone indicates that the Guideline does not include intended loss because there is nothing ambiguous about the term loss. Thus, the ordinary meaning of “loss” in the context of § 2B1.1 is “actual loss.

The Court also reviewed other sources for their definition of loss citing Webster’s New International Dictionary and the 1988 edition of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Both of which had matching definitions of “loss.” Next the Court reviewed sister jurisdictions on their conclusions and cited the Sixth Circuit which concluded the definition to be actual loss.

Because the commentary expanded the definition of “loss” by explaining that generally “loss is the greater of actual loss or intended loss,” the Court determined the commentary should have no weight. In other words, the commentary conflicted with the plain language of the guideline itself and so could not be applied.

Ultimately, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that “loss” in the context of U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 is not ambiguous. Therefore, the Court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded the case. The district court must re-sentence Banks without the additional levels for intended loss.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. We have also won criminal appeals and PCRAs in state and federal court. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.