According to the report and recommendation of magistrate Edwin Torres in United States vs. Stevens (SD Fla.) recommending the dismissal of the defendant’s motion to dismiss, passed yesterday by Judge Darrin Gayles:
This case involves a religious medium trying to break a family curse by “cleaning up” some “dirty” money. As far-fetched as it may seem, the government has chosen to make it a federal case. And not just any federal case; a wire fraud and money laundering case against the self-proclaimed medium, the accused Stevens. However, the defendant squarely targets the government’s indictment as an attack on a wide range of for-profit religious evangelism in America, despite the fact that such for-profit ventures are now ubiquitous. The accused sees herself as a religious prophetess and follower who believes in her psychic abilities and keeps her promises. The defendant thus challenges the legal validity of the indictment and argues that it represents a selective prosecution by the government for a type of religious activism while attempting to criminalize its own unique beliefs.
It is undoubtedly true that millions of religious followers, relying on messages communicated by wire and mail through interstate commerce channels, contribute millions (if not billions) of dollars to religious institutions and enterprises (entities non-profit organizations that do not pay taxes on these millions) on the belief that, directly or indirectly, their efforts will prove fruitful and useful. After all, if one believes in God, one can also believe that religious prophets are worth investing in as symbols or agents of one’s God who do God’s work here on earth.
A humanist or an atheist, however, would see things very differently. They would say that anyone who buys this religious message with monetary conditions attached is foolish or gullible or naive. They would say that whoever gives money to a religious prophet, in the hope that God will be more merciful to him or grant him some favor or benefit, has been the victim of a fraud.
Ordinarily, especially in our country where the First Amendment is sacrosanct in its protection for those who practice or believe in religion, the government is not expected to take a position on one side or the other of this fundamental debate. So what makes this case different? Perhaps the government has taken the side of a non-believer by seeking to criminalize non-traditional religious practice, even though the religious profit of established religions is supposed to be practiced every day?
The government argues persuasively that, unlike religion-based demands for money or tithes from religious believers as a whole, this is a case of fraud directed at a specific individual target with the intent to harm that victim. So, unlike a universal appeal to religious followers to contribute to the cause, this case concerns a direct fraudulent conspiracy to profit under the guise of religious practice.
We are looking at the facts supporting the indictment from the perspective most favorable to the government. The grand jury alleges (and we therefore assume true) that Stevens is a self-proclaimed psychic and spiritual healer. Specifically, the replacement indictment alleges that Stevens “presented herself as a psychic and spiritual healer capable of removing curses to help clients with personal difficulties.”
We know from the government’s response that the victim of the fraudulent scheme, Ilena Torruella, first met Stevens at his psychic booth over 15 years ago. The two began to socialize and met occasionally at various Catholic churches in the Miami area. Torruella shared her family issues with Stevens during these encounters. Stevens explained to Torruella that she had been cursed due to her possession of “dirty” family money. Stevens offered to break the curse by “cleaning up” the money and showing God that Torruella was not attached to it. The grand jury alleges that in doing so, Stevens was misrepresenting herself as a psychic with such powers and that “if [Torruella] did not provide the money, bad things would continue to happen to her and her family. By these representations, Stevens falsely and fraudulently induces [Torruella] to provide him with millions of dollars to supposedly purify the silver and remove the curse.”
Using these false pretenses, Torruella then gave Stevens more than $2 million over several transactions over the course of three years, all in exchange for Stevens clearing the money and lifting the curse. The first payment came on September 19, 2013, when Torruella gave Stevens $1,600,000 in the form of eight $200,000 bank checks. Months later, Stevens told Torruella that the ritual had failed and that Torruella should give him some extra money to break the curse by performing a second ritual.
Torruella then gave Stevens additional money to clean up in the form of (1) four cashiers checks for $200,000 on October 6, 2014, (2) four personal checks for $50,000 on December 31, 2014, (3 ) a wire transfer of $160,000 on April 30, 2015. and (4) a wire transfer of $420,000 on January 21, 2016. After the January 2016 wire transfer, Stevens stopped communicating with Torruella, although he collected 3 $198,000 from the fraudulent scheme. Rather than return the “cleaned up” money, Stevens, along with ex-husband Michael Guzman, kept Torruella’s money and used much of it to fund trips to Las Vegas to gamble, buy a condo in Coconut Grove and buy expensive vehicles. .
Notably, the replacement indictment does not allege that Stevens made a direct promise to the victim that the “cleansed” money would eventually be returned to the victim. But the government argues the indictment reflects probable cause that Stevens knew the victim implicitly understood the money would be cleaned up and returned based on the nature of the transaction, coupled with Stevens’ understanding that the money was needed for the financial support of the victim’s mother. The grand jury also found there was probable cause that Stevens never intended to return the money given that she quickly spent the money for her personal use before the victim could. never ask for it. And when the victim tried to do so, Stevens cut off all communication with her. This is a fraud because the perpetrator intended to defraud the victim of their property with the specific intent of never returning the money the victim assumed they would get back….
The report and recommendation conclude that the indictment sufficiently alleges a scheme to defraud, does not violate the RFRA or the Free Exercise Clause, and should not be dismissed on the grounds of selective prosecution. Some excerpts:
RFRA is not a “free get out of jail card”. Indeed, “no Supreme Court case supports the destruction of government or other property on the grounds of free exercise.” Here, Stevens has come nowhere near meeting his burden of showing how RFRA justifies the dismissal of the indictment that replaces him.
Clearly, the government has a compelling interest in deterring fraudulent schemes disguised as religious activity. But we don’t need to examine the particular contours of that interest here where Stevens has failed to meet her initial burden of showing that she is forced to choose to follow the tenets of her religion or face prosecution. criminal. She does not allege that any of her religious beliefs or practices compel her to convert other people’s money for her own benefit under false pretenses, nor does she allege that any religious belief is involved.
Rather, she argues that, in general terms, her Roma beliefs are weighed down by the prosecution of this case due to her inability to practice her spiritual healing practices without government intervention. But this is too mitigated under RFRA as there are many alternatives for Stevens to practice his religion without engaging in a scheme to defraud another observer of his faith. There is no substantial burden when a regulation or law prohibits only one possible method of engaging in a particular religion, while leaving the other available alternatives unaffected….
[As to the Free Exercise, t]he Supreme Court has determined that the enforcement of criminal laws can be constitutionally achieved even if the neutral enforcement of those laws involves the religious practices of individuals. “Nothing we have said is intended to imply even remotely that under the guise of religion persons may, with impunity, commit fraud against the public. Certainly criminal laws are available to punish such conduct. Even the exercise of religion may in some respects be slight inconvenience so that the State may protect its citizens from harm.” Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).
Therefore, reliance on religious practices to defraud a victim is not privileged under the free exercise clause. Stevens is free to worship as she chooses. She is however not allowed to defraud others on the pretext of exercising her religious beliefs…. If affirmative misrepresentations or material non-disclosures are made regarding the use of funds obtained from others, with intent to defraud, such fraudulent acts may be subject to criminal prosecution.
The jury must, of course, determine that his conduct was performed with fraudulent intent. The defendant may present a defense that she was merely continuing her religious practices, which may be contrary to criminal intent. If the jury finds her belief to be sincere, she may be acquitted. But it’s a matter of trial, not motion to dismiss….
Stevens argues that the law prohibiting wire fraud was selectively enforced against her because of her unique Roma ethnicity and religion. In support of this argument, the defendant conclusively submits that “[s]similarly situated persons are not prosecuted for the same behavior and the difference in treatment can only be based on Ms Stevens’ ethnic origin and religion. But Stevens has provided no evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that she was selectively prosecuted. , she did not provide evidence of others in a similar situation who were not prosecuted, which on the face of it is fatal to any such claim seeking the dismissal of an act of “an otherwise valid charge. She simply argues that because the government does not prosecute all religious groups for accepting donations, or tithes, to organizations, that prosecution of it is discriminatory.
This argument is a non-starter. The indictment alleges that Stevens fraudulently enticed the victim to provide him with money to remove the curses and “clean up the money.” This money was not supposed to be a gift to Stevens. It is not a charitable organization governed by 26 USC § 501(c)(3). The indictment alleges that after converting the victim’s money, Stevens used it for private interests of himself and his co-defendant, including gambling in Las Vegas. Obviously, this was not for a religious or charitable purpose. According to the government, Stevens is being prosecuted, not because of her religious beliefs, but because of her scheme to defraud the victim in this case. For purposes of a motion to dismiss, the evidence of a selective prosecution in these circumstances has not been satisfied….