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United States v. Saboonchi

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

January 28, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ALI SABOONCHI

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.

Defendant has moved for a judgement of acquittal, or in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 29(c) and 33, respectively, following a conviction for violations of United States export restrictions on trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Defendant argues that an acquittal or a new trial is warranted by an improper appeal to the patriotism of the jury and to anti-Iranian prejudice during the Government's rebuttal closing argument. I find no impropriety or unfair prejudice in the Government's remarks to warrant an acquittal or a new trial. Accordingly, I deny the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

On August 11, 2014, Defendant Ali Saboonchi was convicted of one count of conspiracy to export to an embargoed country and six counts of unlawful export to an embargoed country, and one count of unlawful attempt to export to an embargoed country in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act ("IEEPA"), 50 U.S.C. §§ 1702 & 1705 and the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations ("ITSR"), 31 C.F.R. § 560.203-4, following a jury trial. Jury Verdict, ECF No. 231; Second Superseding Indictment, ECF No. 95.

Saboonchi's trial commenced on July 28, 2014 and spanned eleven days. Criminal Jury Trial Minutes, ECF Nos. 204 and 221. During the course of the trial, the Government presented extensive evidence that Defendant Ali Saboonchi, a dual citizen of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, had engaged in shipping industrial components from the United States to Iran through intermediary countries in violation of the IEEP A and the ITSR. During his testimony, Saboonchi conceded that he had requested quotes from manufacturers, placed orders, and exported the products to third countries for their subsequent shipment to Iran, but he claimed that he had not known that shipment to Iran through a third country was unlawful. Aug. 7, 2014 Trial Tr. 871:24-874:12; 879:1-10. Although Saboonchi testified that he did not possess the requisite willful and knowing intent to violate the export restrictions, the Government offered numerous statements by Saboonchi in his email communications and internet chats with co-conspirators as evidence of Saboonchi's knowing and willful violation of the law.

At closing argument, Defense counsel maintained that Saboonchi lacked motive or intent to commit the charged offenses, asking the jury, "[W]hy would Mr. Saboonchi take all of this risk if he knew that his conduct was illegal, if he knew that the consequences potentially were[?] He wasn't making any money." Aug. 8, 2014 Tr. 71:14-17, Gov't's Resp. to Def.'s Mot. for J. of Acquittal or New Trial ("Gov't's Opp'n") Ex. 1, ECF No. 245-1. Defense counsel further emphasized Saboonchi's lack of motive or intent to violate the export restrictions:

[N]o rational person would take all of this risk with no financial reward if they knew their conduct was illegal. Mr. Saboonchi would not have knowingly put himself and his family in that situation if he knew what the potential consequences are.... [W]hy would he have been doing this if he knew that it was illegal[?] What did he get out of it? Nothing that the government has shown.

Id. at 72:11-19. On rebuttal, the Government disputed Saboonchi's claim as to his mental state by arguing that

the question here is not about... money.... What it was about was loyalty. And the defendant himself acknowledged in his own statement to Agent Abagnale that Iran is his home. His family is there. His friends are there. That is where he grew up. This case is about loyalty, his loyalty to helping his friends back home get things they couldn't otherwise get and he violated the law doing that.

Rebuttal Tr. 92:18-93:5, Gov't's Opp'n Ex. 2, ECF No. 245-2.

At the conclusion of closing arguments, following submission to the jury, Saboonchi's counsel objected to the Government's statements suggesting that Saboonchi had loyalty to Iran. Id. at 96:3-8. In light of the fact that the jury already had been sent out to deliberate, the objection was noted for the record.

After the jury returned a verdict convicting Saboonchi on all counts, Saboonchi filed the pending Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or a New Trial ("Def.'s Mot."), ECF No. 234, within the time provided by Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(c)(1) and 33(b)(2). In his motion, Saboonchi alleges that the Government "told the jury that the case was about Mr. Saboonchi's loyalty to Iran, ' and that Mr. Saboonchi was loyal to Iran because it is where he calls home.'" Id. ¶ 3. Saboonchi contends that the Government's statements constituted an "appeal to the patriotism of the jury" to "invoke and inflame fear of Iran and people of Iranian descent, suspicion of Iran and people of Iranian descent, and general anti-Iranian prejudice." Id. ¶ 4. Further, Saboonchi asserts that the Government's comments regarding his loyalty to Iran were "especially egregious considering the tension in this country due to events in the Middle East at the time of Saboonchi's trial, " and rendered the trial "a wartime prosecution that was susceptible and vulnerable to baseless characterizations of Mr. Saboonchi as unpatriotic or un-American." Id. ¶¶ 7-8.

The Government filed its Response to Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or New Trial ("Gov't's Opp'n"), ECF No. 245, on September 24, 2014 and the time for a reply since has passed without a submission from Saboonchi, see Loc. R. 105.2(a), 207. The motion now is ripe and is before me. Having reviewed the ...


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