Florida Uses a Broad Interpretation of its Money Laundering Statute

In Florida, a person commits the crime of money laundering when he/she conceals the nature, source or location of proceeds of specified unlawful activity. Money laundering in Florida only applies to money or other property that comes from “specified unlawful activity”, but that term is defined very broadly and certainly includes just about any form of theft. “Conceals” is given its ordinary definition and includes any action done to try and avoid disclosure or detection.

When most people think of money laundering cases, they think of some elaborate scheme where a suspect moves money around through different banks and countries or moves the money through a legitimate business to make it difficult for the police to discover where the money went and where it came from. However, much less movement is needed to meet the concealment element of a money laundering crime. In fact, we have seen a money laundering charge where a suspect has merely moved money from one account to another in the same name at the same bank.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a church maintained four separate bank accounts, and donations were deposited into those accounts depending on the particular charitable intentions of the members. The pastor had exclusive control over the benevolent account which was supposed to be for donations benefiting needy people in the community. The other three accounts were for other, specific charitable purposes. Over a couple of years, the pastor transferred money from the other three accounts into the benevolent account and then used money from that account for personal expenses. The pastor was ultimately charged with theft for stealing money that was meant for charity and money laundering for moving money from the other accounts into the benevolent account which he controlled on his own.

The criminal defense lawyer defended the money laundering charges with two arguments. First, the criminal defense attorney argued the pastor did not commit money laundering because the money that went into the church’s bank accounts did not come from “specified unlawful activity.” In fact, the money came from donations which clearly are not unlawful sources. However, the court interpreted the money laundering statute very broadly and ruled that as soon as the money was transferred from one account to another, it became “proceeds from specified unlawful activity” because the money was being improperly moved from its intended account to a different account and different purpose.

The criminal defense lawyer also argued the pastor really made no attempt to conceal the money as the funds were merely moved from one account to another at the same bank, except for some money that was moved to a different bank, but that account was in the pastor’s name. It made more sense that the pastor was moving the money to make it easier to access rather than to conceal the source of the funds. However, the court ruled that because the pastor moved the money to a different account, that was sufficient to satisfy the concealment element of money laundering.

The Florida money laundering statute was designed to address criminal schemes where people were making money from some illegal activity and needed to find ways to conceal, or launder, the cash that came from such illegal activity. Two obvious examples would be selling drugs or gambling. Those are businesses that produce a lot of cash, and criminals would need to figure out some way to process that cash and make it appear legitimate. Hence, the money laundering statute was enacted to punish that practice. This is not the kind of case the money laundering statute was intended to address. However, as is often the case, as government gets bigger and bigger, when they get a new law to use, they use it whenever they can, despite the intended purpose of the law.

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