A federal appeals panel has ruled in favor of a prominent Miami defense lawyer who was accused of a crime for giving advice to a defense team headed by another high-profile attorney in a Medellin cocaine cartel smuggling case.
The 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals found Monday that a lower court judge was "eminently correct" to dismiss an indictment against Ben Kuehne and two others on money laundering charges under the federal statute.
The Atlanta-based panel's ruling was a blow to the U.S. Justice Department, which declined to comment. It was celebrated by defense attorneys, who feared that a successful prosecution would force them to stop taking cases involving defendants whose financial situations are murky.
"This is a huge win not just for Ben Kuehne but for criminal defense lawyers," said David O. Markus, a Miami attorney who helped write a friend of the court brief on Kuehne's behalf for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"It sends the message to the government that criminal defendants are entitled to representation and criminal defense lawyers are entitled to represent clients without having this dark cloud hanging over their heads."
Kuehne, who did not immediately comment, is accused of writing opinion letters that Colombian drug kingpin Fabio Ochoa had enough money free from the taint of drug trafficking to pay some $5.2 million in legal fees. He was paid about $200,000 by Miami attorney Roy Black's law firm and others involved in Ochoa's defense.
A portion of the funds were traced to a businessman named Hernando Saravia, who transferred some of the purportedly legitimate cash from Ochoa to Black.
But Kuehne didn't know that Saravia had been cooperating with federal prosecutors and that some of the money was from illegal drug proceeds being handled by undercover U.S. agents.
The Justice Department had said in a statement last year that it "approaches with great care" any possible prosecution of a defense lawyer. In this case, though, it said prosecutors were confident they had clear evidence of wrongdoing against Kuehne.
"Attorneys are not immune from prosecution for money laundering simply on the basis that they represent criminal defendants," the statement said.
Kuehne had pleaded not guilty and faced maximum prison sentences totaling 50 years on three separate charges. Kuehne also could have been forced to forfeit the $5.2 million paid to Black and others in legal fees, and he could have lost his law license.
He still faces a separate money laundering charge, but defense attorneys say it will be harder to prosecute because it carries a higher standard of proof.
Also charged with Kuehne in the original case are a Colombian lawyer, Oscar Saldarriaga, and accountant Gloria Flores Velez. They also have pleaded not guilty.