A former Baltimore defense attorney convicted of conspiring with his clients to commit money laundering told the Fourth Circuit at oral argument Wednesday that there’s a “significant risk” he was convicted of non-criminal conduct.
The court “usurped the jury’s role” by treating application of the statute of limitations to the facts as a matter of law and committed plain error by failing to equip the jury to evaluate a safe harbor provision, counsel for Kenneth Ravenell told the judges during oral argument Wednesday.
The government needed to prove that the alleged conspriacy continued into the limitations period, Ravenell said.
The government faced aggressive questioning from Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, who said the case was particularly important in light of its implications for an individual’s right to counsel: “How do you get a fair trial when jury isn’t instructed on the statute of limitations?”
Ravenell was convicted in December 2021 of a single count of conspiring to launder money for two unrelated clients, Richard Byrd and Leonaldo Harris. Byrd pleaded guilty to operating a large-scale drug distribution operation in 2016 and claimed that Ravenell counseled him on to avoid law enforcement and helped him to launder criminal proceeds.
Harris also pleaded guilty to unrelated federal narcotics offenses in 2016 after retaining Ravenell.
At trial, the government invited the jury to convict Ravenell of laundering only Harris’ money, but Ravenell says that payments from Harris were exempt under the criminal provision’s safe harbor for legal fees paid by a client to defense counsel. Because the court failed to instruct the jury on the definition of a “monetary transaction,” which excludes legal fees, the court effectively allowed the jury to convict him for lawful conduct, he said.
Even if the payments were unlawful, Ravenell argued that the government was required to prove that the alleged conspiracy continued into the applicable statute of limitations period. But the jury wasn’t instructed on the statute of limitations period either.
The government responded that it wasn’t required to give any of Ravenell’s proposed instructions on the statute of limitations, which it says were legally incorrect.
It also said the parties agreed that the safe harbor instruction wasn’t necessary. The safe harbor isn’t an element of the offense, and Ravenell’s conduct fell outside of its protection under Fourth Circuit law, according to the government.
“This was the defendant’s responsibility, and they botched it,” Leo J. Wise, an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, told the panel.
The government also claimed that because a third party collected the money and paid it to Ravenell at Harris’ request, it falls outside of the safe harbor.
David M. Zornow of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP called this “nonsense.”
Harris was incarcerated at the time, so his girlfriend collected money Harris was owed to pay Ravenell on his behalf, he argued. “If that isn’t smack in the dab of the safe harbor, I’m not sure what could be.”
Zornow also disputed whether Ravenell’s defense counsel “agreed” that the safe harbor instruction wasn’t necessary, calling it an inadvertent mistake.
Healso said that the district court judge didn’t rule that he wasn’t able to give a statute of limitations of instruction because the proposed instruction was incorrect, but that it was a question of law for the court, and that he would take it up if necessary after the verdict.
Judges Toby J. Heytens and J. Harvie Wilkinson III also served on the panel.
Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP also represented Ravenell.
The case is US v. Ravenell, 4th Cir., No. 22-04369, docket 1/11/23.