On May 3, 2017, the IRS scored an important victory in United States v. Little, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67580 (SD NY 2017) by defeating a Motion to Dismiss FBAR charges made by the defendant, Mr. Michael Little. The motion was based on an argument that is often used by opponents of FBAR penalties – the unconstitutionality of the FBAR penalties based on a tax treaty and the vagueness of the FBAR requirement as applied to the defendant. While I do not intend to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Charges and the reasons for its rejection, I do wish to outline certain important aspects of the judge’s opinion.
Brief Overview of Important Facts
The Motion to Dismiss FBAR Charges was made by Mr. Little, a UK citizen and a US permanent resident. Mr. Little was a UK lawyer who also became a US lawyer and practiced in New York. During this time, he helped Mr. Harry G.A. Seggerman’s heirs hide millions in offshore accounts. For his services, he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars which were never disclosed to the IRS.
In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Little was charged with willful failure to file FBARs and his US tax returns. He was further charged with various crimes arising out of his alleged assistance to Mr. Seggerman’s heirs in a scheme to avoid the taxes due on their inheritance held in undeclared offshore accounts.
Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties Based on “Void for Vagueness” Standard
The key argument of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties was based on the so-called “Void for Vagueness” Standard. The court cited United States v. Rybicki, 354 F.3d 124, 129 (2d Cir. 2003) to define the standard as follows: “the void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
In the first part of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties, Mr. Little essentially argued that, in his circumstances, the application of the FBAR requirement was too vague due to the 2008 changes in the definition of the required FBAR filers, particularly with respect to exclusion of persons “in or doing business in the United States”.
The Court dismissed the argument stating that whatever was an issue with respect to “in or doing business” provision, a lawful alien resident of ordinary intelligence (whether or not he was “doing business in the United States”) would have understood that the FBAR requirement applied to him because the definition of the “United States resident” includes green card holders. Hence, the vagueness of the original FBAR definition was inapplicable to a lawful alien resident such as Mr. Little.
Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties and Other Criminal Counts: No Vagueness in Criminal Statutes Because Willfulness Must be Proven Beyond Reasonable Doubt
The Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties also contained several more “void for vagueness” arguments (related not just to FBARs, but also to Mr. Little’s failure to file US tax returns and his role as an “offshore account enabler”). Among these arguments, Mr. Little especially relied on several US-UK tax treaty provisions which led him to believe that he was not a US tax resident (in particular, he believed that he was in the United States temporarily and he interpreted the treaty as stating that he was not a US tax resident even though he had a green card).
The Court dismissed Mr. Little’s treaty-based arguments based on its interpretation of how a person of ordinary intelligence would have understood these provisions. Here, I wish to emphasize one of the most important parts of the decision – the affirmation that the worldwide income reporting requirement was not vague. The Court found that “the U.S. statutes and regulations that require alien lawful permanent residents (green card holders) to either (a) file a tax return and pay taxes on worldwide income, or (b) file a tax return reporting worldwide income and indicate that he or she is taking a particular protection under the Treaty, are not unconstitutionally vague as applied”.
The most interesting aspect of the Court’s decision, however, was in its last part. Here is where judge Castel dealt a death blow to all of Mr. Little’s void-for-vagueness arguments. The Court stated that, since a conviction can only be achieved if the government proves willfulness beyond reasonable doubt, none of the relevant criminal tax provisions (including criminal FBAR penalties) can be deemed as vague.
The reason for this conclusion is very logical – in order to prove willfulness, the government must establish that: “the defendant knew he was legally required to file tax returns or file an FBAR, and so knowing, intentionally did not do so with the knowledge that he was violating the law.” Obviously, if such knowledge and intention of the defendant are proven beyond the reasonable doubt, the defendant “cannot complain that he could be convicted for actions that he did not realize were unlawful”.
Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties Based on Vagueness Versus Non-Willfulness Arguments
It is important to emphasize that the vagueness arguments contained in Mr. Little’s Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties can still be utilized to establish the defendant’s non-willfulness even though the Motion to Dismiss was denied. In other words, while the void-for-vagueness arguments were insufficient to challenge the criminal tax provisions, they may be important in establishing the defendant’s subjective perception of these provisions and his non-willful inability to comply with them.
I believe that the defendant’s motion in this case was destined to be denied. In reality, the defendant might have made this motion not to win, but in order to establish the base for asserting the same arguments in a different context of undermining the government’s case for willfulness. The Court itself stated that one of the Defendant’s arguments (reliance on advice received from her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs”) was in reality a potential affirmative defense to failure to file US tax returns, not an argument against the constitutionality of the laws in question.