Whitfield v. United States (03-1293)

January 11, 2005 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!
Much to our surprise, the Court issued only one opinion today, in Whitfield v. United States, No. 03-1293. Justice O'Connor, writing for a unanimous Court, found that conviction for conspiracy to commit money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) does not require proof of an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Before Congress enacted § 1956(h), money laundering conspiracies fell under the general conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371, which does require proof of an overt act. Section 1956(h) provides that "[a]ny person who conspires to commit any offense defined in [section 1956] shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy." Whitfield argued that this language was intended only to enhance the penalties available for money laundering conspiracies proven under § 371, not to establish a new substantive offense that omitted proof of an overt act. The Court rejected this argument, relying heavily on its decision in United States v. Shabani, 513 U.S. 10 (1994), in which it held that the drug conspiracy statute has no overt act requirement. First, Whitfield conceded that the language of § 1956, standing alone, was enough to establish a substantive offense for money laundering conspiracy -- that is, § 371 was not needed as the basis for conviction. Second, the plain language of § 1956(h) did not support Whitfield's interpretation, especially because conspiracies at common law did not require proof of an overt act -- and Shabani made clear that Congress was presumed to adopt the common law meaning of statutory terms absent evidence to the contrary. Third, Shabani and other prior case law (of which the Congress was presumed to be aware) established that the Court would not infer an overt act requirement where none was expressly provided in the statute.
As always, thanks for reading!
Kim & Ken
From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart, Ken Heath, Aaron Bayer, or Jeff Babbin at 203-498-4400