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Mehta v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 7, 2014



DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for resolution in this case is the motion of Petitioner, Jiten Mehta ("Mr. Mehta" or "Petitioner"), to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 103).[1] Also pending is Petitioner's motion for leave to conduct discovery, (ECF No. 106), and a motion to terminate his supervised release (ECF No. 127). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, Petitioner's motions to vacate and for discovery will be denied. Supervised release will, however, be shortened to two years.

I. Background

Mr. Mehta was a tax preparer who served many immigrant clients in Maryland through his company, JDM World Financial Services Group, Ltd. When a taxpayer came to Mehta, he would have the taxpayer complete a worksheet disclosing expense information that he would then use to determine if the taxpayer would be eligible to file a Schedule A, which lists itemized deductions claimed on the tax return. Mr. Mehta personally interviewed taxpayers who appeared to qualify for filing Schedule A returns, but he did not ask detailed questions in order to determine how accurately to report itemized deductions. Many of the Schedule A returns Mehta filed did not correspond to the information his clients provided. Moreover, although the taxpayers' circumstances varied, their filed returns contained deductions that were similar.

Mr. Mehta also participated in the Refund Anticipation Loan ("RAL") program that allows a taxpayer to obtain an advance on his refund through the tax preparer. Under the RAL program, Mehta would submit a taxpayer return to the IRS and to BankOne, the participating bank, by using Drake Software, an electronic transmitter. BankOne would then send electronic authorization to Mehta, permitting him to issue a check to the taxpayer. Once it was processed, the actual refund was sent by the IRS to BankOne to cover the "loan" made to the taxpayer through Mr. Mehta. BankOne electronically transmitted Mr. Mehta's fees from each transaction through Drake Software to Mr. Mehta's bank account in Maryland.

On the basis of this conduct, Mr. Mehta was charged by a twenty-seven count indictment, filed on March 6, 2006, with aiding and assisting in the preparation of false income tax returns (count 1-16), wire fraud (counts 17-25), and money laundering (counts 26-27). (ECF No. 1); 26 U.S.C. § 7602(2); 18 U.S.C §§ 1343, 1957. The case proceeded to trial on September 18, 2007, and during the trial the Government dismissed the money laundering counts. On September 27, 2007, following a seven-day trial, a federal jury convicted Mr. Mehta of all remaining counts. ( See ECF No. 55). On April 21, 2008, the undersigned sentenced Petitioner to forty-eight (48) months of imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release, and judgment was entered on the same day.[2] (ECF No. 81). Petitioner appealed, arguing that the district court erred in: (1) denying his motion for judgment of acquittal on the wire fraud counts; (2) denying his motion for a subpoena under Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 17(c); and (3) calculating the tax loss by extrapolating from a non-random sample of audited returns to determine his offense level under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2T1.4(a). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed on all grounds. See United States v. Mehta, 594 F.3d 277 (4th Cir. 2010).[3] On October 4, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States denied Mr. Mehta's petition for a writ of certiorari. See Mehta v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 279 (2010).

On October 3, 2011, while in federal custody, Petitioner timely filed the instant motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. ( See ECF Nos. 103 & 105). He also filed a motion for leave to conduct discovery on October 25, 2011. (ECF No. 106). The government opposed Petitioner's habeas petition on February 6, 2012, (ECF No. 111), and Petitioner replied on December 3, 2012 (ECF No. 126).[4] Petitioner was released from federal custody on approximately March 8, 2012. Mr. Mehta then moved to terminate his three-year supervised release term on July 17, 2013 (ECF No. 127), the government opposed this motion on August 19, 2013 (ECF No. 128), and Petitioner replied on January 28, 2014 (ECF No. 129).

II. Standard of Review

28 U.S.C. § 2255 requires a petitioner asserting constitutional error to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that "the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law." If the Section 2255 motion, along with the files and records of the case, conclusively shows that petitioner is not entitled to relief, a hearing on the motion is unnecessary and the claims raised in the motion may be summarily denied. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

III. Analysis

A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Petitioner's Section 2255 motion is premised on acts he believes demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel.[5] Specifically, Petitioner argues that his counsel was ineffective by: (1) failing to move the court for an automatic dismissal of the indictment for violation of the Speedy Trial Act; (2) denying Petitioner the right to testify at trial; (3) failing to investigate and present witnesses and evidence to support Petitioner's innocence/reduced sentence; (4) failing to move for dismissal of the charges on the ground that the prosecution was instituted for racially biased reasons; (5) failing to request a bench trial instead of a jury trial; (6) failing to request an interpreter at all proceedings; (7) failing to investigate and secure testimony from Petitioner's certified forensic accountant concerning tax loss; (8) failing to seek a shorter sentence based on Petitioner's family ties; (9) failing to negotiate a plea with the Government; and (10) failing to instruct the jury during closing arguments that the money laundering charge was dismissed. ( See ECF Nos. 103 & 105).

Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are governed by the well-settled standard adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To prevail on a claim under Strickland, the petitioner must show both that his attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that he suffered actual prejudice. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. To demonstrate actual prejudice, Petitioner must show that there is a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694.

In the Strickland analysis, there exists a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within a wide range of reasonably professional conduct, and courts must be highly deferential in scrutinizing counsel's performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688-89; Bunch v. Thompson, 949 F.2d 1354, 1363 (4th Cir. 1991). Courts must assess the reasonableness of attorney conduct "as of the time their actions occurred, not the conduct's consequences after the fact." Frye v. Lee, 235 F.3d 897, 906 (4th Cir. 2000). "A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. Furthermore, a determination need not be made concerning the attorney's performance if it is clear that no prejudice could have resulted from some performance deficiency. See id. at 697.

Petitioner's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are reviewed against these standards.[6]

1. The Speedy Trial Act

Petitioner argues that his trial did not begin within seventy (70) days from the indictment, and that in extending the trial date, "the Court failed to make the statutorily-required ends of justice' findings in ordering [] continuances." (ECF No. 105, at 2). Petitioner asserts that his attorney's failure to move for an automatic dismissal on this basis constitutes ineffective assistance.

Under the Speedy Trial Act, a defendant is entitled to trial within the later of 70 days from his indictment or first appearance. 18 U.S.C. § 3161(c)(1); United States v. Shealey, 641 F.3d 627, 632 (4th Cir. 2011). The Act excludes certain delays from computation if "the ends of justice served by taking such action[s] outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial." 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(7). Courts granting such delays must provide their reasoning after considering various factors such as whether a delay would result in a miscarriage of justice or the case is so unusual or complex that counsel cannot adequately prepare for trial within the established time limits. Shealey, 641 F.3d at 632.

The record plainly contradicts Petitioner's position that the undersigned failed to make the "ends-of-justice findings." Indeed, the parties jointly moved to toll the Speedy Trial clock on April 25, 2006. ( See ECF Nos. 13, 14 & 111-1). In that joint motion, the parties made the following representations:

Because of the involvement of third party returns, discovery is anticipated to be extensive. For example, there have been hundreds of Jiten Mehta's clients audited for purposes of preparing the charges against him, and there are thousands of pages of tax and other documents available for review. For reasons unknown to the Government, counsel for defendant did not officially enter the case until April 12, 2006, and is now involved in trial preparation and trial [is] expected to take until May 8 to complete. As of this time, no pre-trial motions have been considered or filed by the defendant.... In this case, defense counsel and the government cannot meaningfully share discovery to permit defense counsel to file appropriate pre-trial motions until her trial is completed in early May.... In this instance, because of trial counsels' trial schedules, the ends of justice are best served excluding time that would allow defense counsel to consider and to file pre-trial motions, which themselves would toll the Speedy Trial Act.

(ECF No. 111-1, at 3-4). The undersigned subsequently issued an order on April 26, 2006, acknowledging that "the parties are currently involved in trial and cannot share discovery that permits defense counsel to consider and file pre-trial motions until such discovery has been received." (ECF No. 111-1, at 6-7). The undersigned concluded that:

Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(8)(B)(ii), this case is both unusual and complex as contemplated by the statute. That is, the parties require additional time to marshal evidence and to determine what motions may be filed, if any. Moreover, this case involves complex issues and atypical discovery related to the filing of false tax returns on behalf of third parties and money laundering, which involve voluminous documents. The Court concludes that in such circumstances it is unreasonable to expect adequate preparation within the time generally set for trials under the Speedy Trial Act.
The Court therefore determines that the interest of the defendant[] and the interests of the public within the 70 non-excludable days usually set by the Speedy Trial Act are outweighed by the ends of ...

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