Tax practitioners and students cannot be reminded too often on the importance of Cheek's definition of willfulness - voluntary intentional violation of a known legal duty -- and Cheek's holding that a sincerely held even if objectively unreasonable belief that the conduct is lawful requires acquittal because the defendant did not knowingly violate the law. Cheek v. United States, [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], 498 U.S. 192 (1991), here. In a case where the defendant claims the defense of good faith belief and it is supported in the record, the defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed that good faith belief even if objectively unreasonable requires acquittal. I have previously reported the standard appellate dodge in cases where district courts have denied a Cheek good faith instruction but the instruction should have been given -- i.e., by holding that lack of good faith is subsumed in the otherwise adequate willfulness instructions. See e.g., Fourth Circuit Reverses Tax Obstruction Conviction Because of Bad Instruction and Affirms Denial of Good Faith Instruction for False Claim Conviction (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/20/13), here. (For a variance on that dodge, see First Circuit Rejects Tax Defier's Complaints About IRS Packing Heat and Improper Good Faith Defense Instructions (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 1/15/14), here.)
In United States v. Montgomery, [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], ___ F.3d ___, 2014 U.S. App. Lexis 5790 (5th Cir. 2014), here, the Fifth Circuit held that it is error not to give the good faith instruction if properly presented in the record. The Court, rightly I think, held that otherwise adequate willfulness instructions did not cure the problem. But, the Court held, that the conviction should nevertheless be affirmed because, although error, the error was harmless in the case because the evidence of willfulness (and, presumably, lack of good faith) was "so overwhelming that the error could not have contributed to the jury's decision to convict."
The majority and the concurring decisions are useful to practitioners and students, so I excerpt substantial portions below. In considering the excerpts, a key fact is that both the prosecution and the defendant had each requested a good faith instruction with the concept that a good faith belief even if objectionably unreasonable required acquittal. The district court judge thought the concept was included in the willfulness instruction. Here are the excerpts, first from the majority decision (footnote omitted), then from the concurring opinion.
View Jack Townsend's opinion in its entirety on the Federal Tax Crimes blog site.
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