The thought of being charged with a “white collar crime" can send shivers through executives, business builders and financial experts. Unlike “street" crimes such as drug offenses, robbery, and crimes of violence, the exact limits of white collar crime are often ill-defined. While no criminal charge is ever a sign of guilt in our society because one is innocent until proven guilty, this is especially so in white collar crimes. A committed, aggressive, early defense is critical. It can help cut off or limit charging and investigation.
The United States Department of Justice defines white collar crime as:
Nonviolent crime for financial gain committed by means of deception by persons whose occupational status is entrepreneurial, professional or semi-professional and utilizing their special occupational skills and opportunities; also, nonviolent crime for financial gain utilizing deception and committed by anyone having special technical and professional knowledge of business and government, irrespective of the person’s occupation.
News reports often highlight white collar crime such as insider trading, option backdating, internal accounting fraud as at Enron and WorldCom, the savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s and, now, Ponzi schemes.
But white collar crime charges reach beyond the headlines. Such charges can include computer fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud, conspiracies of all sorts, bribery, embezzlement, securities fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, environmental cover ups, false statements and perjury, improper currency reporting, and racketeering, among others.
But the applicable laws are often ambiguous, which only underscores how important an early, aggressive, proactive defense can be. For while the prosecutor has great discretion in charging white collar crime and trying to stretch the limits of loosely worded laws, defense counsel can intensely challenge every word of an indictment, review the facts, and establish a solid and honest explanation for what has occurred.
A white collar crime, like nearly every crime, requires proof of a bad state of mind – of the intent to commit a crime either purposefully or with some level of knowledge of the crime. Wanting to make money is not a crime. Being aggressive and taking fair advantage of regulations and laws is not illegal. Being entrepreneurial is an attribute. And although ignorance of the law is seldom an excuse, ignorance can help counter elements of a white collar crime. A strong early defense can help accent these points and may even be able to halt further charging.
While “street" crime and “white collar" crime might be different, the defense of such crimes are not -- both require single-minded focus on the facts and the law to show that the prosecution is going in the wrong direction, and that the defendant has been wrongly accused, was acting within the law and was trying to make a better life fairly.