661 F.3d 755 (4th Cir. 2011), 10-4478, United States v. Blair

Docket Nº:10-4478.
Citation:661 F.3d 755
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM:
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Walter Lloyd BLAIR, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:Eric Hans Kirchman, Kirchman & Kirchman, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Michael Richard Pauze, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee. Kenneth M. Robinson, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, Jonathan ...
Judge Panel:Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON and WYNN, Circuit Judges. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by published PER CURIAM opinion as to Sections I, II, and III. Judge WILKINSON wrote the majority opinion as to Section IV, in which Judge WYNN joined. Chief Judge TRAXLER wrote a...
Case Date:September 21, 2011
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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661 F.3d 755 (4th Cir. 2011)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Walter Lloyd BLAIR, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 10-4478.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

September 21, 2011

Argued: March 25, 2011.

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ARGUED:

Eric Hans Kirchman, Kirchman & Kirchman, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Michael Richard Pauze, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Kenneth M. Robinson, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, Jonathan C. Su, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON and WYNN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by published PER CURIAM opinion as to Sections I, II, and III. Judge WILKINSON wrote the majority opinion as to Section IV, in which Judge WYNN joined. Chief Judge TRAXLER wrote a dissenting opinion as to Section IV.

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OPINION

PER CURIAM:

Walter L. Blair, a Maryland attorney, concocted and executed a scheme to launder drug proceeds that he obtained from a client. Blair was tried and convicted on eight counts of concealment money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i); one count of laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a); one count of tampering with a witness in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512; one count of obstructing justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1503(a); one count of making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2); and two counts of failing to file an income tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7203.1 He received a 97-month sentence. Blair appeals several counts of conviction for money laundering as well as his obstruction of justice conviction. Blair also challenges the ruling of the district court denying his motion to sever the failure-to-file counts. We affirm the convictions for money laundering under §§ 1956 and 1957, and we affirm the district court's denial of Blair's motion to sever. We reverse, however, Blair's conviction on the obstruction-of-justice charge (Count 11 of the superseding indictment) for insufficient evidence. We remand for resentencing in light of this opinion.

I.

In 2003, Anthony Rankine operated a large marijuana distribution ring near Richmond, Virginia, with numerous associates who, like Rankine, were originally from Jamaica. About twice per month, Rankine received 500-pound crates of marijuana from his suppliers on the west coast. Rankine paid for the marijuana with cash that was rubber-banded in $1,000 stacks. Members of the operation also used this packaging method for storing business proceeds and paying each other for supplies.

Elizabeth Nicely Simpson (" Nicely" ) was a Maryland resident who was employed at a retirement home in Germantown, Maryland. In August 2003, Nicely's sister, Janet, asked her to purchase a Cadillac Escalade for Rankine. Rankine supplied an $18,000 down payment, and Nicely financed the remaining amount in her own name based on Rankine's promise to supply the funds to pay off the loan. Although the vehicle was registered and titled in Nicely's name, Rankine used it as his own. Shortly after Nicely helped Rankine obtain the Escalade, Janet requested that Nicely perform another favor for Rankine— that she store a safe belonging to Rankine at her house. Even though Nicely understood that Rankine earned a living as a drug dealer, she agreed to keep the safe. Rankine brought the safe to Nicely's house but did not leave her a key or the combination to the safe.

In the fall of 2003, Rankine's girlfriend, Tasha Robinson, was murdered and found in his Richmond home. Initially, Rankine was missing, along with Tasha's son. The case garnered substantial media coverage as a manhunt was conducted. (Rankine and, tragically, the boy, were murdered and found in the subsequent weeks). According to Nicely, it was around the time of these events that she became aware that the safe contained drug money and realized she could be in danger. Nicely therefore moved the safe from her home to a storage facility.

It was also during this time that Nicely began receiving phone calls from Rankine's associates. Dashawn Saunders, a

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member of Rankine's organization, contacted her and indicated he wanted to take possession of Rankine's Escalade, which was being held by an automotive rim and tire shop in Richmond. Nicely gave Saunders written permission to take the Escalade from the premises of the auto shop. Saunders was accompanied by Shannon Bell, a marijuana dealer who used Rankine and Saunders as his suppliers. When they arrived to retrieve the vehicle, however, police arrested them on drug trafficking charges. The Escalade contained $42,000 in drug proceeds that Bell had given Saunders earlier. When Nicely began receiving threats and phone calls about the money in her possession, she became frightened and confided in co-worker Michael Henry that she was holding a safe containing drug money that belonged to Rankine. Henry advised Nicely to contact a criminal defense attorney, and Nicely agreed. They were referred to Blair, a local attorney in Maryland. Like Rankine and his associates, Nicely, Henry and Blair were all native Jamaicans.

On November 4, 2003, Nicely called Blair. Over the phone, Nicely explained to him that she was holding a safe containing drug money belonging to Rankine, that Rankine was missing and that Tasha Robinson had been murdered. Blair cautioned her that the phone might not be secure and asked her not to say anything else. Blair requested instead that Nicely come to his office for a face-to-face appointment later that day.

During her initial meeting with Blair, which Henry also attended, Nicely repeated that she had a safe containing drug proceeds belonging to Rankine and that she was frightened in light of the violence linked to Rankine. To emphasize her point, Nicely showed Blair internet media coverage linking Tasha's murder and Rankine's disappearance to a large " Jamaican drug ring." J.A. 170. Nicely also expressed concern about the phone calls she had been getting. Specifically, Nicely told Blair that she received a phone call from someone who indicated that Saunders was incarcerated in Richmond and " need[ed] that drug money" for his legal defense. Nicely was also worried about being tied to the Escalade.

Blair advised Nicely and Henry to open the safe by any means necessary, retrieve the contents and bring them back to Blair. The following day, Nicely contacted the manufacturer of the safe, the Sentry Group, and obtained a key. Nicely and Henry dumped the contents of the safe— stacks of cash secured by rubber bands— into a duffle bag without counting it.

On November 6, 2003, Nicely and Henry took the duffle bag of cash to Blair's office as Blair had instructed them. Henry gave the duffle bag to Blair, who then asked Nicely to leave the room to " protect" her, while he and Henry counted the money. J.A. 175. Henry watched Blair count approximately $170,000 from the duffle bag. When they reconvened with Nicely, however, Blair told her there was only about $70,000 in the bag.

After counting the cash from Rankine's safe, Blair suggested that they take several steps. First, Blair gave Nicely and Henry a cover story to explain the cash. Blair told them that if anyone asked, they should say that it was " partner money." J.A. 176. " Partner money" is a familiar concept in Jamaican culture, and both Nicely and Henry understood the term when Blair used it. Essentially, a " partner" arrangement is an asset-pooling arrangement that allows people of modest means to obtain substantial funds that would not be available to them through a lending institution. The " partners" agree to contribute a given amount to the pool on

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a regular basis; the money is held and administered by a person known as the " banker." The banker then distributes the pool to one partner, and each partner successively receives a " draw" until all of the partners have received their draw. Blair instructed Nicely to say that Tasha, Rankine's deceased girlfriend, was the banker. Blair explained that calling Tasha the banker was particularly effective " since she was the banker who ha[d] everyone's information, [but] she's dead so nobody would know." J.A. 185.

Next, Blair announced that he intended to set up a real estate corporation for Nicely— although she never asked him to do so— through which she could use some of the money to buy properties. Blair asked Nicely to pick a name for the company, and she selected her son's name, " Jay Paul." William Payne, an attorney in Blair's firm, prepared the Articles of Incorporation for " Jay Paul Property Management," and listed both Nicely and Henry as officers. Blair then presented Nicely with a " Retainer and Fee Agreement," on which Blair instructed her to write " This is a retainer to establish my corporation [for] the purpose of buying and selling real estate in the DC metro area." J.A. 673. Blair further instructed Nicely to write " I also authorize and retain Blair & Lee to recover my vehicle or [t]ake appropriate action to protect my interest." Id. Additionally, Nicely, pursuant to Blair's instructions, wrote " Initial deposit for new bank account $7,000.00." J.A. 674.

Finally, Blair told Nicely and Henry that they needed to set aside money to cover the legal fees of two of Rankine's associates who had been arrested on drug charges in Richmond— Saunders and Richard Bernard. Also, Blair indicated they should set aside cash to find and recover the...

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