Mail fraud is one of the most frequently prosecuted federal crimes in Nevada. It also carries some of the heftiest penalties, including decades in prison and enormous fines.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys explain the white-collar federal crime of mail fraud in Nevada. Scroll down to learn what constitutes mail fraud, some possible defenses, and its potential punishments.
Like it sounds, the federal offense of mail fraud in Nevada is when someone uses the mail in attempt to defraud someone else.1 Therefore, this is an extremely broad crime because it applies to any act of fraud that in any way relies on the mail to effectuate it.
In order for someone to be convicted of mail fraud in Nevada Federal Court, the prosecution must succeed in proving four things:
- There was a “fraudulent scheme” meant to deprive another person or institution out of money, property, or “honest services” (such as ethical conduct or trade secrets).
- The defendant had an intent to defraud.
- The fraud involved material misrepresentations of truth.
- The defendant used the mail to carry out the fraud.
Each of these four “elements” to the federal crime of mail fraud in Nevada are discussed below:
The central element to a mail fraud case is the “fraudulent scheme” that the defendant allegedly devised or carried out. There are several types of mail fraud cases, which range from phony charities to sweepstakes scams. Elko NV criminal defense attorney explains the common crime of “chain mail fraud”:
Example: John in Carson City sends out letters to random people that contain a list of several names. The instructions are to send $10 to the name at the top of the list, to then scratch out that person’s name, to write in his/her own name at the bottom, and finally to send the letter to several other people with instructions to do the same. The letter promises that the person will eventually receive several times more than the initial $10 investment once his/her name reaches the top of the list.
For a list and explanation of other common mail fraud schemes, go to the USPS mail fraud site.
Intent to defraud
A person is not criminally liable for mail fraud in Nevada unless he/she deliberately set out to defraud another person or an institution. But note that “intent to defraud” is different from merely using sneaky marketing practices to lure clients, which may be legal. Reno NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse illustrates this distinction with an example:
Example: Sam sends out mailings to Henderson, Nevada, homeowners offering to refinance their mortgage at a low cost. Sam deposits any money sent back to him into a personal account and never does anything to refinance their mortgages. Meanwhile, Jim sends out similar mailings but with letterhead that makes it look like his company has partnered with the Federal Housing Authority, which it has not. However, Jim uses all the money sent back to him to refinance the people’s mortgages as promised in the letter.
Here, it is possible that Sam but not Jim would be arrested and booked at the Henderson NV Detention Center for mail fraud. Sam’s actions of pocketing the money into his private account would be evidence showing his intent to defraud his customers. In contrast, Jim did everything his mailings promised and did not defraud his clients. Although his letterhead may have been deceiving by making it look like he was backed by the Federal Housing Authority, this action probably would not rise to the level of fraud.
Therefore, it is not mail fraud if the defendant uses mild trickery in the mailings as long as the services and products he/she promises are legitimate. Therefore, if the defendant did not mean to cause injury or harm and sent the mailings in good faith, there should be no grounds for mail fraud prosecution in Nevada federal court.
A person should not be convicted of mail fraud in Nevada if any misrepresentations he/she made were not “material.” Courts are vague about what constitutes materiality because it is very dependent on the specific case. But in general, a material misrepresentation means that the untruth the defendant told was a direct cause of the victim falling prey to the fraud.
The final element of a mail fraud conviction in Nevada is that the defendant in some way rely on the mail to carry out fraud. That does not necessarily mean that the actual papers sent through the mail must be fraudulent. They just need to be used to carry out the fraud before a court could hand down a guilty verdict for mail fraud.
Note that someone may be prosecuted for mail fraud in Nevada federal court even if the mail is never sent out of state. Also note that mail fraud is a crime even if the defendant uses a mail service other than the United States Postal Service such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL.
Since mail fraud is such a broad crime, how best to defend against allegations of mail fraud depend wholly on the specific facts of the case. Below are three typical defenses to mail fraud in Nevada federal court:
- No intent. Intent to defraud can be very difficult for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prove in mail fraud cases because it goes to the state of mind, which is intangible. If the prosecution cannot produce enough circumstantial evidence to show that the defendant was not acting in good faith and meant to harm the victims, then the defendant should be acquitted of the charges.
- Illegal search. Another common defense to criminal cases has nothing to do with the defendant’s alleged misconduct but rather the cops‘ alleged misconduct. If the police may have conducted an illegal search to obtain evidence in a mail fraud case, then the defense attorney may file a “Nevada motion to suppress evidence” with the court. If the judge grants the motion and disregards all the evidence that may have been unlawfully obtained, then the prosecution may decide to drop the whole case for lack of proof.
- Insufficient evidence. The most common defense to any criminal case is that the prosecution failed to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an extremely high standard, much higher than in most civil lawsuits where the burden of proof is only “preponderance of the evidence.” So as long as the defense attorney can show the court that the government’s case is too inadequate, contradictory or unreliable to sustain a guilty verdict for mail fraud, then the defendant should not be found criminally liable.
All mail fraud cases in Nevada are heard in either one of the two federal courthouses in the state: The Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, or the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno. Judges may impose a sentence of:
- up to twenty (20) years in Federal Prison, and/or
- a fine (the judge determines the amount depending on the facts of the case)
But if the mail fraud scheme involves federal disaster relief or if the victim is a bank or other financial institution, the maximum punishment is raised to:
- up to thirty (30) years in Federal Prison, and/or
- up to one million dollars ($1,000,000) in fines
Note that the court may also impose restitution in Nevada. Also note that since there are currently no federal prisons within the state of Nevada, people convicted of mail fraud are either transported to a federal prison out-of-state, or sometimes they’re housed in Nevada State Prison.
Arrested? Call us . . . .
If you or a loved one is facing federal mail fraud charges in Nevada, do not hesitate to contact our Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys for a free consultation. Our first plan of attack would be to try to get the charges dropped or lessened to more minor charges. Otherwise we can take your case to a jury and fight zealously for a “not guilty” verdict.
Also see our article on the federal crime of presenting false or fictitious claims.
For information about federal mail fraud charges filed in California, go to our article on federal mail fraud law in California.
Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, or to sell, dispose of, loan, exchange, alter, give away, distribute, supply, or furnish or procure for unlawful use any counterfeit or spurious coin, obligation, security, or other article, or anything represented to be or intimated or held out to be such counterfeit or spurious article, for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice or attempting so to do, places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service, or deposits or causes to be deposited any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by any private or commercial interstate carrier, or takes or receives therefrom, any such matter or thing, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail or such carrier according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, any such matter or thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation occurs in relation to, or involving any benefit authorized, transported, transmitted, transferred, disbursed, or paid in connection with, a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency (as those terms are defined in section 102 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5122)), or affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.