Friday, July 15, 2022

Wire Fraud Indictment Did Not Violate RFRA

In United States v. Stevens, (SD FL, July 12, 2022), a Florida federal district court adopted the magistrate's lengthy opinion of (May 2, 2022) and refused to dismiss a money laundering and wire fraud indictment against a religious psychic. The fraud victim, Ilena Torruella, believed that she was cursed because she possessed millions of dollars of "dirty" family money. Defendant offered to break the curse by "cleansing" the money and showing God that the victim was not attached to it. According to the court:

The key point Defendant relies upon to seek dismissal of this indictment is that Stevens never expressly promised to return Torruella’s money and Torruella never directly asked whether it would be returned before turning over her funds to Stevens.... Without an express agreement or promise to return the money, Stevens concludes that Torruella received exactly what she bargained for. The money was cleansed when Torruella gave it away.

Defendant contends that the indictment infringes her free exercise rights under RFRA and the 1st Amendment. However the magistrate's opinion rejects that contention, saying in part:

[Stevens] does not allege that any religious belief or practice of hers requires her to convert other people’s money for her benefit on false pretenses.... She instead argues that in general terms her Roma beliefs are burdened by the prosecution of this case based on her inability to practice her spiritual healing practices without government intervention. But that is too attenuated under RFRA because there are plenty of alternatives for Stevens to practice her religion....

The court concluded:

The jury must, of course, determine that her conduct was carried out with fraudulent intent. Defendant may present a defense that she was simply pursuing her religious practices, which may be antithetical with criminal intent. If the jury finds her belief to be sincere, she may be acquitted. But that is a matter for trial, not for a motion to dismiss.

Volokh Conspiracy has additional excerpts from the decision.