C&J appeals UPUAA conviction arising out of alleged theft by check scheme

dt.common.streams.StreamServerChristensen & Jensen (“C&J”) appellate attorney Karra Porter has appealed her client’s conviction of 12 counts of theft and one count of engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity arising out of an alleged theft by check scheme.  The State alleged that C&J’s client, a manager in a limited liability company, in connection with his co-defendant wrote 28 bad checks from the LLC’s bank account to the alleged victims.

Jury Finds Defendants Guilty of 12 Counts of Theft and One Count of a Pattern f Unlawful Activity

In the charging documents, the State charged C&J’s client and his codefendant with 28 counts of theft in connection with the 28 bad checks he and his co-defendant allegedly wrote from their LLC’s account, and one count of engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity.

During the trial, the defendants moved to dismiss the State’s case at the end of the State’s evidence, but that motion was denied.  However, the State voluntarily dismissed two counts against defendants on its own during the trial.  Of the remaining counts, the jury found the defendants guilty on 12 counts of theft, and a single count of engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity.

The trial court sentenced C&J’s client to prison, but suspended the sentence in favor of probation.  As part of that probation, the court ordered C&J’s client to serve one-year in the Salt Lake County Jail.  Additionally, the trial court also ordered C&J’s client to pay restitution to the alleged victims in the amount of approximately $190,000.  C&J’s client appealed both his convictions and the restitution award separately, which the Utah Court of Appeals consolidated into a single appeal.

C&J Asserts that Court Erred in Jury Instructions

As it relates to the UPUAA conviction, C&J’s client argues that the UPUAA count should be dismissed, and/or his conviction reversed, based on the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on all the required elements of the Utah Pattern of Unlawful Activity Act (“UPUAA”), and because “wrongful appropriation” is not a predicate offense for purposes of the UPUAA.

Under the UPUAA, the State must allege and prove, among other things, that the defendant engaged in a “pattern of unlawful activity.”  In this case, the State submitted a proposed jury instruction on that element, to which C&J’s client’s trial counsel did not object.  The instruction read in pertinent part:

“Pattern of Unlawful Activity” means engaging in conduct which constitutes the commission of at least three episodes of unlawful activity, which episodes are not isolated, but have the same or similar purposes, results, participants, victims, or methods of commission, or otherwise are interrelated by distinguishing characteristics. Taken together, the episodes shall demonstrate continuing unlawful conduct and be related either to each other or to the enterprise. The most recent act constituting part of a pattern of unlawful activity as defined shall have occurred within 5 years of the commission of the next preceeding [sic] act alleged as part of the pattern.

Pattern of Unlawful Activity Must be Over a “Substantial Period of Time”

In her appeal brief, Karra argues that “[w]hile the instruction is a quote from part of the Act … it fails to require the jury to find a required element of a pattern under UPUAA, i.e., that the required predicate acts occurred over a ‘substantial period of time.’”  The reference to “substantial period of time” refers to what is known as the “continuity” element under the UPUAA, which was added to the statutory definition of a pattern of unlawful activity by the Utah Supreme Court following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Sedima, S.P.R.L. v. Imrex.

In H.J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that continuity must be shown in order to sustain a conviction under federal RICO.  There the Court said, “[c]ontinuity may be demonstrated over a closed period by proving a series of related predicates extending over a substantial period of time[.]”

Similarly, in Hill v. Estate of Allred, the Utah Supreme Court adopted a similar interpretation of the UPUAA’s pattern requirement.  The Supreme Court in Hill held that “[t]he proper test for determining whether there was a pattern of unlawful activity, is whether there was a ‘series of related predicates extending over a substantial period of time’ or a demonstrated threat of continuing unlawful activity and not whether there were multiple schemes.”

Karra argues that in light of the holding in Hill, “[t]he State’s instruction given by the trial court omitted the key requirement that the related predicates extend over a ‘substantial period of time.’” Karra says while the Utah Supreme Court has not had occasion to determine what constitutes a “substantial period of time” under Hill, the court has consistently looked to federal law in interpreting Utah’s UPUAA.  Under federal law, courts have “overwhelmingly” held “that a period of less than one year is insufficient – as a matter of law – to constitute a ‘substantial period of time’ under RICO,” Karra’s brief sets forth.

In the present case, Karra states that “11 of the 12 checks were written in a single three-and-one-half month period, plainly not a ‘substantial period of time.’”  Furthermore, even if the outlying check was added to the alleged pattern, it would still only constitute nine months, again insufficient for purposes of establishing continuity for purposes of the UPUAA, Karra argues.

“Wrongful Appropriation” is Not a Predicate Offense for Purposes of the UPUAA

Aside from the “continuity” issue, Karra asserts that the State’s alleged predicate act of “wrongful appropriation” is not one of the recognized predicates acts under the UPUAA.  The UPUAA lists approximately 64 predicate acts which qualify as “unlawful activity,” but wrongful appropriation is not among those.  Therefore, Karra has argued that if her client’s “convictions are reversed in order to address wrongful appropriation,” then “the UPUAA conviction must also be reversed.”

The instant appeal highlights the importance of jury instructions, and how one essential missing element in an instruction can lead to a conviction.  It also shows how the UPUAA is intertwined with federal RICO, and as a result, how the Utah Supreme Court interprets the UPUAA within the broader federal RICO context.  Furthermore, it underscores the importance of ensuring that the charging documents include a proper predicate offense for purposes of a UPUAA charge.

Karra will argue her client’s case to the Utah Court of Appeals on May 26, 2016.  If you or someone you know has been charged with engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity, please call C&J’s UPUAA attorneys at (801) 323-5000, or email Karra directly at Karra.Porter@chrisjen.com.

* Photo Cred.: avvo.com