363 F.3d 237 (3rd Cir. 2004), 03-1800, United States v. Wright

Docket Nº:03-1800
Citation:363 F.3d 237
Party Name:United States v. Wright
Case Date:April 06, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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363 F.3d 237 (3rd Cir. 2004)



Lawrence W. WRIGHT Lawrence Wright, Appellant.

No. 03-1800.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 6, 2004

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Jennifer-Kate Aaronson, Potter, Carmine & Hodas, Wilmington, for Appellant.

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Richard G. Andrews, Office of the United States Attorney, Wilmington, for Appellee.

Before ALITO and CHERTOFF, Circuit Judges, and DEBEVOISE,[*] District Judge.


ALITO, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a final judgment in a criminal case. Lawrence W. Wright was convicted and sentenced for conspiring to transport stolen property in interstate commerce, transporting stolen property in interstate commerce, money laundering, and making false statements in a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. All of these offenses related to a scheme to steal money from the Church that the defendant served as pastor. We affirm.


Lawrence W. Wright was the pastor of the New Mt. Olive Baptist Church ("the Church") in Wilmington, Delaware. The Church maintained multiple bank accounts. One of these, the "General Account," was controlled and reviewed by Church officials, but another, called the "Fire Account," was under the defendant's sole control. The intended purpose of the "Fire Account" was to help the needy.

Al O. Plant, Sr., ("Plant") was an elected member of the Delaware House of Representatives. Under a Delaware Department of Transportation program that was popularly called the Suburban Street Funds ("SSF") program, each elected state representative was allocated a share of money to spend on transportation-related projects in the representative's district. Plant had control over the funds for the City of Wilmington. Plant ceded control of his SSF funds to the City, and in return, the City created an account with an equivalent amount of money that would be spent on non-profit human services projects as Plant requested. For purposes of simplicity, we will refer to the latter funds as Plant's SSF funds.

According to the government, Plant made SSF moneys available to the defendant, and the defendant used these funds for his own personal use and for bribes for Plant. In May 1999, Wright wrote to Plant requesting $50,000 for a "bus being used for seniors' transportation to the doctor, clinic, hospital, and trips during the day." Plant then contacted the City of Wilmington and requested that it write a check for $49,449 from his SSF to Wright. The City drew a check for $49,449 payable to Wright on an account at the Wilmington Trust Company in Wilmington. The defendant immediately deposited the check into the Fire Account at the Sun National Bank. After the check was deposited, it was sent to a third-party processor, then to First Union Bank, and then across state lines to the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from which it was returned to Wilmington Trust Co.

After these funds were deposited in the Fire Account, the defendant began to disburse them for purposes having nothing to do with transportation or assisting the needy. He caused $8,500 to be transferred into his personal account, and he caused $8,500 to be transferred into Plant's personal account. In early August, the defendant wrote himself a check for $8,000 on the Fire Account and deposited the check in his personal account. Later in the month, he arranged for transfers of

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$8,000 and $3,500 from the Fire Account into Plant's personal account.

In May or June of 1999, Plant enticed Delaware State Representative Helen Keeley to make $50,000 of her SSF money available to him. In October 1999, the defendant wrote to Plant and requested $35,000 to "completely construct a new sidewalk" in front of the Church. A short time later, Keely, at Plant's request, signed a letter authorizing the transfer of $50,000 from her SSF to the Church. When the defendant received the check, he deposited it in the Fire Account, and this check, like the previous check drawn on the Wilmington Trust Co., was cleared through the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia.

Although the money from Representative Keeley's SSF funds was supposed to be used to construct a sidewalk, no repair or reconstruction of the sidewalk was ever done. Instead, money from the Fire Account was again diverted to the defendant and Plant. In November 1999, the defendant drew an $8,000 check on the Fire Account payable to Plant, and he arranged for the transfer of another $8,000 from that account to Plant's account. During the month of November, the defendant wrote himself approximately $21,000 in checks on the Fire Account. In December 1999, he wrote a check for $1,500 from the Fire Account to a body shop to pay for repairs to his Mercedes.

In July 2000, Plant took action in response to a request from the defendant for money to repair a house so that it could be used as an outreach ministry. Plant authorized $50,000 to be paid from his SSF to the Church. Once again a check was drawn on the Wilmington Trust Co., the defendant deposited the check in the Fire Account, and the check was cleared through the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia. After this money was deposited in the Fire Account, the defendant transferred funds from that account to himself and to Plant. He wrote Plant a check for $5,600, and on several occasions he wrote checks to himself, deposited the checks in his personal account, and then used that account to write checks for Plant in the same amount as the checks that he had originally written to himself. In addition, during a period of approximately five weeks after the deposit of the money in the Fire Account, the defendant wrote other checks on that account for himself and family members totaling $22,100.

In September 2000, the defendant was interviewed by two FBI agents. During one interview, he said that the Church had received only $99,449 of SSF, as opposed to the $149,449 that had actually been received. He also told the FBI agents that the Church had used the part of the proceeds from the first Wilmington Trust Co. check (for $49,449) to make a down payment on a new bus and that the rest had been used for incidental Church expenses or a reserve account. He claimed that the remaining $50,000 had been used to repair the Church, to refurbish an old bus, and to initiate a senior citizen's program. The next day, the defendant was again interviewed by two agents and said that the Church had used the $49,499 check for its reserve account and for day-to-day Church expenses and that the Church had used the $50,000 check to buy computers, to overhaul the bus, and to defray various other Church costs.

On March 25, 2001, a grand jury returned a 19-count indictment against the defendant, charging him with one count of conspiring to transport stolen property in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; three counts of causing the transportation of stolen property in interstate commerce (one count for each of the three checks for SSF funds), in violation of

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18 U.S.C. §§ 2314 and § 2(b); four counts of money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(I); nine counts of bribery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666; and two counts of making false statements to the FBI, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

The defendant moved to dismiss the counts of the indictment that involved the transportation of stolen goods in interstate commerce. He argued that those counts were defective because they did not allege that he knew that the stolen property would travel in interstate commerce. See United States v. Wright, 194 F.Supp.2d 287, 291 (D.Del.2002). He also urged the District Court to dismiss the bribery counts on the ground that they did not implicate any federal interest. Id. at 296.

The District Court denied the motion to dismiss. The Court ruled that the interstate element of 18 U.S.C. § 2314 is purely jurisdictional and that therefore it was not necessary for the defendant to have known that the property was going to travel in interstate commerce. Id. at 290-95. The Court also held that it could not conclude at that juncture that a sufficient federal interest was not implicated, but it invited counsel to raise the issue again after trial. Id. at 295-301.

The defendant was then tried before a jury. During the trial, the defendant claimed that he had stolen money from the Church to repay cash loans from Plant, who had loaned the defendant money to help him pay his gambling debts. The defense argued that while this theft was wrong, it was not a federal crime. The jury found the defendant guilty on all counts.

The defendant filed a post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal in which he renewed the arguments that he had made in his earlier motion to dismiss. The District Court granted the motion with respect to bribery counts1 but refused to dismiss the other counts.

The District Court sentenced the defendant to 51 months of imprisonment. In doing so, the District Court rejected the defendant's request for a downward departure based on his charitable work. The defendant then took this appeal.



The defendant first argues that the evidence at trial was insufficient to prove that he willfully caused another person to violate 18 U.S.C. § 2314 (transportation of stolen items in interstate or foreign commerce). The defendant contends that a person cannot willfully cause property to be transported in interstate commerce without knowing that the property will be transported in interstate commerce, and he maintains that the evidence does not show that he had such knowledge. We reject this argument because the defendant's interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 2314 and 18 U.S.C. § 2(b) is incorrect.


It is clear that a defendant who personally transports stolen property in interstate commerce may be convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2314 without proof that the defendant knew that the...

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