Amir Hosseini and Hossein Obaei, who operated three Chicago-area automobile dealerships, sold many luxury cars to drug dealers over a ten-year period. Hosseini and Obaei were apparently popular with this market segment because of their willingness to take large cash payments in small bills. Eventually, federal prosecutors caught up with them, and, following a five-week trial, they were convicted by a jury on 97 counts of conspiracy, money laundering, mail fraud, illegal transaction structuring, bank fraud, and aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy. The Seventh Circuit has now affirmed these convictions and the 15- and 20-year sentences that went along with them.
Had it been properly preserved, the most substantial legal issue on appeal would have been the question left open by United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008): whether, in a traditional money-laundering prosecution, the government must prove that the allegedly laundered proceeds are net profits, as opposed to gross receipts, of the underlying crime. (See my blog post about Santos here). However, since the Santos issue was raised for the first time on appeal, the court used plain-error review and found that the defendants could not satisfy the standard given the “unsettled state of the law.” (2)
Hosseini and Obaei also raised an interesting voir dire issue.
At the defendants’ request, the trial judge questioned the panel of prospective jurors about bias against Iranian-Americans. The question elicited troubling responses from two prospective jurors. One said that Muslims were a “huge threat” and indicated that she was “scared of them.” Another prospective juror revealed that he had “a problem with people that weren’t born in this country.” Both were excused for cause.
Hosseini and Obaei then requested individualized questioning of all of the remaining members of the venire on religion and national origin bias. Based on what they had just heard from the dismissed jurors, their concerns don’t seem unreasonable.
On the other hand, it is not clear that individualized questioning would have been a helpful response to those concerns. As the trial judge oberved in denying the defendants’ request, “[Q]uestioning creates a suggestion. . . . [W]hat that basically does is to heighten the problem instead of easing a problem.”
Is this correct — does individualized questioning exacerbate bias by making it more salient in the minds of prospective jurors? This seems an excellent question for social scientific research. Offhand, I’m not aware of any studies on this question, though, and the Seventh Circuit did not cite any. Instead, the court invoked the wide discretion that trial judges are granted in managing voir dire, and observed, “[O]rdinarily, questioning jurors as a group is sufficient to satisfy the Sixth Amendment, even when the defendant belongs to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority and juror bias on one or more of these grounds might be a concern.” (19)
The Seventh Circuit also rejected arguments made by the defendants concerning misjoinder, the exclusion of evidence by the trial judge, and sufficiency of the evidence.
The case is United States v. Hosseini (Nos. 08-1879 & 08-1880) (full text available here).
Cross posted at Seventh Circuit Updates.