The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed a woman’s money laundering conviction in a case involving the theft of more than $300,000 from her girlfriend’s parents. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Braune.
The girlfriend’s mother and stepfather had a home in North Andover but lived in Florida during the winter. When they departed for Florida in the fall of 2013, they left behind more than $300,000 (stacked in fifty and one hundred dollar bills) in a locked closet in their bedroom. The defendant’s girlfriend was the only other person who knew about the money. The relationship between the girlfriend and her parents had deteriorated in the years prior to 2013, and when they left she started stealing their money. The girlfriend gave large amounts of stolen cash to the defendant, who began depositing the money into her checking account. The deposits were always under $10,000 which later became important to the prosecution. Over time, the defendant’s girlfriend stole the entire pile of cash, along with some of her mother’s jewelry. The defendant and her girlfriend went on a spending spree: taking trips to Las Vegas, Aruba, and Paris; staying in luxury hotels; and buying a new car. The defendant and her girlfriend both said they were spending money the defendant had inherited from her grandfather. When the girlfriend’s parents returned to Massachusetts and discovered their money had been stolen, the police became involved and eventually obtained a search warrant for the California home of the defendant and her girlfriend. Inside their bedrooms, the police found the girlfriend’s mother’s jewelry along with $130,100 in cash, stacked in fifty and one hundred dollar bills. The defendant was charged with money laundering and receiving stolen property. After an Essex Superior Court jury convicted her, she appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The defendant argued on appeal there was insufficient evidence to establish she had intended to “conceal” the stolen money, as required by the money laundering statute, because she had deposited it into her own bank account using her own name. The SJC disagreed and concluded the defendant had attempted concealment in at least three ways: she had made false statements that the money was an inheritance she had received; she had deposited the money into her account (rather than her girlfriend’s account, which would look suspicious given the theft suffered by the girlfriend’s parents); and she had made a series of deposits less than $10,000. This was important because any deposit of $10,000 or more is reported to the federal government. By making numerous deposits that are under the $10,000 threshold, the defendant had presumably hoped the government would not learn about the money (this practice is called “structuring”). The Court found that each of these acts by the defendant were efforts by her to conceal the nature of the stolen money.
The money laundering statute is broadly written and gives prosecutors an important weapon against people who attempt to hide illegal money. Oftentimes, the penalty for the money laundering charge will exceed the penalty for the underlying crime.