The Second Circuit Limits Bank Fraud Prosecutions Where A Check Is Validly Issued (and other facts don't get in the way)

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If you're ever involved in a bank fraud case, you should probably read the Second Circuit's opinion reversing Mr. Felix Nkansah's bank fraud conviction. If the government wants to convict someone for bank fraud, the Second Circuit says they've got to show that the person was trying to defraud a bank (as opposed to trying to defraud someone or something else).

The Company You Keep

Felix Nkansah fell in with some bad company.

He worked with a number of other people to steal identity information for people, like names, dates of birth, and social security numbers. Specifically, he stole this information from hospitals, childcare databases, and foster care.

The group then filed false tax returns with the names and social security numbers they had stolen. Cleverly, they didn't file tax returns that showed taxes were owed. Instead, they filed returns that triggered tax refunds.

The fraudulent returns had refunds that totaled more than two million dollars. The group actually received a little more than half a million dollars.

When the refund checks came to a group member, the member would forge a signature on the check and deposit it in a bank account that the group controlled.

Mr. Nkansah was charged with conspiracy to file false claims with the IRS, filing false claims with the IRS, bank fraud, aggravated identity theft in connection with the bank fraud, and identity theft.

He was convicted of all of them at trial.

1390009_dollar.jpgThe Second Circuit

On appeal, though, the Second Circuit reversed his conviction for bank fraud. This was tax fraud, sure. But bank fraud? Nope.

Let's start at the start - with 18 U.S.C. § 1344, the bank fraud statute:

Whoever knowingly executes, or attempts to execute, a scheme or artifice-- (1) to defraud a financial institution; or (2) to obtain any of the moneys, funds, credits, assets, securities, or other property owned by, or under the custody or control of, a financial institution, by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises; [is guilty of bank fraud]

Mr. Nkansah argued on appeal that there was a lot of evidence that he intended to defraud the federal Treasury, but there wasn't any evidence that he intended to defraud a bank.

While defrauding the Treasury is really bad, he was convicted of bank fraud. And there wasn't evidence that he committed that crime.

In fact, Mr. Nkansah argued that there was no reason to think that the banks lost money through this whole transaction. As the Second Circuit summarized it:

In essence, he argues that the banks were no more victims of his deceptions than a bank in which someone opens an account under a false identity to conceal funds from a spouse or business partner.

The Second Circuit agreed with the law undergirding the prosecution:

Appellant is correct that the bank fraud statute is not an open-ended, catch-all statute encompassing every fraud involving a transaction with a financial institution. Rather, it is a specific intent crime requiring proof of an intent to victimize a bank by fraud. See United States v. Rubin, 37 F.3d 49, 54 (2d Cir. 1994). "[A] federally insured or chartered bank must be the actual or intended victim of the scheme."

Summarizing all of this,

The government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant intended to expose the banks to losses.

The Evidence Of What Was In Mr. Nkansah's Mind

The government had two kinds of evidence to try to show that Mr. Nkansah intended to defraud the banks. First, they relied on statements made to other folks in the group.

Mr. Nkansah had talked to others about which banks would be least likely to discover the scheme. The Second Circuit rejected these arguments -

While these concerns surely support an inference of an intent to avoid detection, on this record they have no probative value as to an intent to injure the banks.

Second, the government tried to show that because the bank was actually going to suffer a loss - or the bank said it was going to suffer a loss - that was enough to show that Mr. Nkansah thought the bank would suffer a loss.

The Second Circuit has allowed such an inference where a person forged a check and went to the bank to cash it (though, interestingly, the court of appeals said such an inference isn't required). But this isn't such a case - here Mr. Nkansah had a legitimate check (which was issued under false pretenses). That exposes the issuer of the check to a loss, but not, on these facts, the bank.

Because there was no evidence to support the conclusion that Mr. Nkansah intended to defraud the banks - as opposed to the Treasury - his conviction for bank fraud was reversed.

As was his conviction for aggravated identity theft based on the bank fraud.