It’s pretty obvious that someone is getting income in a questionable manner when they start buying new cars, expensive tech, and luxury goods that should be totally out of their budget. Money laundering allows people to make illicitly earned funds appear to come from legitimate income sources so the money can be spent without raising red flags to law enforcement officials. Anyone accused of money laundering should contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.
What is Money Laundering?
Laundering money doesn’t involve washing cash but finding a way to make illegally-earned funds seem legitimate. It can be done in many ways. A great example is the way Skyler uses the car wash in Breaking Bad to funnel the cash Walt makes from drug dealing by creating fraudulent receipts for cash purchases so the money appears to have been earned legitimately through the business. She can then add the cash to her and Walt’s bank accounts and spend it without appearing to have suddenly obtained a suspicious amount of money.
Money laundering can be done on a massive or minuscule scale depending on the amount of cash that needs to be legitimized and the assets of those doing the activity; however, to fall under state law, the amount must exceed certain values. Additionally, while some criminals launder their own money, others go through individuals or groups that specialize in making illegitimately earned funds seem less suspicious. In the later cases, money laundering could be the only charge.
However, in most money laundering cases filed in San Diego, defendants will also face charges related to the illegal activities they committed to get the money —this is why the best lawyer for this offense has experience handling a wide variety of criminal charges.
How is Money Laundering Defined Under State Law?
Most cases of money laundering in California involve charges filed under 186.10 (PC). This law requires the prosecutor to be able to prove the following:
- The defendant completed one or more transactions through a financial institution, such as a bank or credit union
- The transactions added up to over $5,000 in a seven-day period or $25,000 in 30 days
- The defendant either acted to promote criminal activity or with the knowledge that the funds were proceeds from a crime
When the money was obtained through the sale, manufacture, cultivation, or transportation of a controlled substance, defendants can also be charged under Health and Safety Code 11370.9 (HS). This offense is similar though it can only be brought up against those accused of laundering money from drug crimes. To prove these charges, the prosecution must show:
- the defendant knew the money came from a drug crime
- they moved the funds around to hide their ownership or source
- the amount was greater than $25,000 over a 30-day timeframe
Both of these offenses require the prosecution to show that the money came from an illegitimate source, which can be a difficult standard to meet —unless you say something to indicate that you knew where the money came from when speaking with the police. Police officers often trick people into confessing by exaggerating how much evidence they have. Never talk to investigators without your attorney present, or you could end up saying something that could undermine your entire case.
Is Money Laundering a Felony?
Yes, and no. Under both the general money laundering penal code and the health and safety code covering drug money, money laundering is a wobbler, meaning it can be filed as a felony or misdemeanor.
It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether it will be charged as a misdemeanor. They will typically base the severity of the charges on the crime’s circumstances and your criminal record.
Money Laundering Penalties in California
As a misdemeanor, these offenses are punishable by no more than one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. When filed as a felony, the crimes can carry a prison sentence of up to four years and a fine of either $250,000 or twice the amount of the money you have been accused of laundering, whichever is greater.
The penalties for 186.10 (PC) can increase in some situations. In cases where a defendant is found guilty of laundering money on more than one occasion, the maximum fine can be increased to either $500,000 or five times the amount that was laundered (whichever is higher). The prison sentence can also be increased by one year if more than $50,000 was laundered or by four years if it was over $2,500,000.
Additionally, anyone convicted of this crime will have the funds in question seized through the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. If you win your case, any money or property taken by investigators must be returned to you.
Fighting the Charges
Because there are precise requirements for a crime to fall under the state’s money laundering statutes, there are many ways to fight these charges. If the prosecution cannot show the money was tied to illegal acts, you knew the money was obtained illegally, that the transactions met the minimums stated under the law, or if they were performed outside of a financial institution, you cannot be found guilty. Similarly, if you were charged under 11370.9 (HS), prosecutors must be able to prove that the money came from a drug crime, that you knew it was drug money, that you were trying to hide the source and ownership of the money, and that the offense involved more than $25,000 transferred over 30 days.
Even if there is sufficient evidence to prove all of these factors though, your criminal defense attorney may be able to secure a plea bargain that will help minimize the severity of the charges against you or the penalties you may face.
San Diego prosecutors frequently charge people in possession of large amounts of cash without explanation under the state financing law of not having a money transaction license. This felony charge allows them to avoid having to prove actual money laundering occurred. Prosecutors also use this as a means of seizing and forfeiting the cash, though again, you’ll get your money back if you win the case.
If you have been accused of money laundering or any related crime, please call (760) 643-4050 today to schedule a free consultation with a top attorney in San Diego like Peter M. Liss.