The U.S. legal system affords taxpayers who commit tax fraud the right to a hearing, but what about the right to a separate hearing? What if one is put on trial with a co-defendant who is particularly offensive or, perhaps worse yet, one who is more innocent than another?
United States v. Robbins, 220 F. App’x 859 (10th Cir. 2007) addresses this. It is a case involving tax fraud and raises questions about the fairness of joint trials for defendants with mutually exclusive defenses.
Facts & Procedural History
Lee Robbins founded Robbins & Associates, which was a bookkeeping and tax return preparation business located in Georgia and Oklahoma. Robbins recruited, hired, and trained Gabriel Bonner. Bonner operated the Tulsa office and Robbins operated the Atlanta office; however, Robbins continued to review and e-file the tax returns prepared by Bonner.
Unfortunately, Robbins & Associates had a practice of helping clients minimize their tax payments and maximizing their refunds by falsely characterizing nondeductible personal expenses as deductible business expenses. The IRS typically starts these cases by investigating and imposing tax return preparer penalties. It moves on from there to injunctions and/or criminal charges.
Both Robbins and Bonner were indicted for conspiracy to defraud the IRS, Robbins was indicted for fifteen counts of aiding and assisting the preparation and submission of false and fraudulent tax returns, and Bonner was indicted for fifty different counts of aiding and assisting the preparation and submission of false and fraudulent tax returns.
The end result: Bonner was acquitted on all charges and Robbins was found not guilty of conspiracy but guilty of the 15 individual counts.
Robbins filed a pre-trial motion asking for a separate trial because he felt that he would be prejudiced by being tried with Bonner. The district court denied Robbins’ motion. The question for the court was whether Robbins was entitled to a separate trial.
The Motion for Severance
A motion for severance is a legal request made by a defendant in a criminal trial to have their case separated from that of their co-defendants. When a motion for severance is based on conflicting defenses, the court must undertake a three-step inquiry to determine whether to grant the motion.
The first step is to determine whether the defenses presented by the co-defendants are mutually exclusive. If the acceptance of one defendant’s defense would tend to preclude the acquittal of the other, or if the guilt of one defendant tends to establish the innocence of the other, then the defenses are mutually exclusive.
The second step is to determine whether there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence. Even if the defenses are mutually exclusive, a defendant must demonstrate that a joint trial would be prejudicial to their case.
If the first two factors are met, the trial court then weighs the prejudice to a particular defendant caused by joinder against the important considerations of economy and expedition in judicial administration. In other words, the court must balance the defendant’s right to a fair trial with the practical concerns of judicial efficiency.
If the trial court ultimately denies severance, an appellate court will only reverse the decision if the defendant can demonstrate an abuse of discretion, meaning that the trial court’s decision was unreasonable or arbitrary.
Mutually Exclusive Defenses
In this case, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Bonner each presented defenses that blamed the other for tax fraud. This illustrates the antagonistic nature of their defenses because the acceptance of one defendant’s defense would tend to preclude the acquittal of the other. Mr. Robbins was able to show that their defenses were mutually exclusive.
However, the court noted that the second element must also be met. Mr. Robbins had to show that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence. The court found that Mr. Robbins did not establish the required specific prejudice, which means that he did not show that a joint trial would have been unfair to him or would have prevented the jury from making a reliable judgment.
As a result, the court did not need to engage in the third step of the inquiry, which involves weighing the prejudice to the defendant against the considerations of judicial economy. Since Mr. Robbins did not show the required specific prejudice, the appeals court said that the trial court’s denial of the motion to sever did not amount to an abuse of discretion.
The Unequal Sentences
Some might argue that the decision was not equitable to Mr. Robbins because he was found guilty of 15 individual counts of aiding and assisting the preparation and submission of false and fraudulent tax returns, while his co-defendant Bonner was acquitted on all charges. They might argue that the joint trial may have unfairly prejudiced Mr. Robbins, making it more difficult for him to receive a fair trial.
Additionally, some might argue that the legal standards for granting a motion for severance based on conflicting defenses can be difficult to meet, especially when the defenses are mutually exclusive. This may create a situation where defendants who have conflicting defenses are forced to go to trial together, even if it may be more equitable to separate their cases.
This case raises questions about the fairness of joint trials for defendants with mutually exclusive defenses. While a motion for severance can be made, the legal standards for granting such a motion can be difficult to meet, and a defendant must demonstrate specific prejudice. The decision, in this case, found that Mr. Robbins did not establish the required specific prejudice, which means that a separate trial was not granted. However, some may argue that the joint trial unfairly prejudiced Mr. Robbins, as he was found guilty of 15 individual counts while his co-defendant Bonner was acquitted on all charges. This case highlights the challenges of balancing a defendant’s right to a fair trial with the practical considerations of judicial efficiency.