Our friendly federal court of appeals here in Atlanta issued a recent opinion about evidence in a case arising out of a federal prosecution that reminded me of the funny quote from Blazing Saddles (and earlier movies and stories) about how the bad guys “don’t need no stinking badges.” For the evidence geeks out there, the opinion concerns preliminary rules for assessing and potentially accepting a piece of evidence when there is a strong challenge as to whether the evidence is “authentic” under Rule 901 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. After 36 years of trying cases in federal court, I call this “passing the smell test” for challenged documents. The opinion is a lesson on how lawyers need to keep abreast of these rules, which can often win, or lose, a case.
Raul Gutierrez committed fraud when constructing the airport on the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, and somehow the decidedly unfriendly federal prosecutors were able to bring federal criminal charges against him in south Florida. Raul pled guilty in 2006, and as I have discussed on earlier occasions, the Judge imposed the usual financial penalties, such as restitution, along with a hefty prison sentence. Raul had some real estate in Florida, the judge “forfeited ” the property, and later the nation of Trinidad and Tobago wanted to get the land as a “victim” of the offense. Time passed, the island got the judge to let them weigh in on whether they could go after the property, and then, a magical thing happened. A company that was once associated with our friend Raul claimed that they held a “security interest” in the property, even though no one had ever mentioned this million dollar “interest” nor recorded it in the preceding decade. In other words, years later, friends of Raul claimed they held a piece of paper that said they had a superior interest in the particular piece of real estate. Continue reading