Telecommunications behemoth AT&T is feeling just a little richer this year thanks to a con man who flashed some cash in a Kansas federal courtroom a couple of years ago.
The story, spelled out in a spring federal court ruling, contains a cautionary tale for criminal defendants: Be careful about bringing big wads of cash to court when you’re likely to be leaving in handcuffs.
The drama began at Anh Ngoc Dang’s sentencing hearing in July 2012. U.S. District Judge Eric F. Melgren had just sentenced him to two years in federal prison for counterfeiting a Kansas driver’s license. The judge tacked on eight months for Dang’s “lengthy and persistent conduct of making false representations to authorities.”
Two deputy U.S. marshals stepped up and began a routine that is familiar in all federal courtrooms: The surrendering defendant empties his or her pockets, placing the contents on the counsel table.
Dang dropped a wad of bills totaling $1,472.
A defense lawyer reached for the money, intending to hand it to Dang’s wife. A marshal told him not to touch it. The marshal looked at the prosecutor, who looked at the judge, who announced that the U.S. Marshals Service would hold the cash until he could decide what to do with it.
When the two sides squared off next, prosecutors argued that the money should be used toward restitution Dang still owed AT&T from an earlier criminal case. Dang had pleaded guilty in 2000 to wire fraud for connecting the telephone lines of a Lenexa nail salon to those of an adjacent Men’s Wearhouse to illegally bill the clothier for long-distance calls to Tennessee and Vietnam.
Dang replied that his wife had given him the money for use in his prison account, usually used to pay for snacks and small necessities. He also questioned whether the marshals had the authority to seize the money.
Eventually a district court judge noted that the government had a lien on all of Dang’s property. Therefore, prosecutors could enforce the restitution order by all “available and reasonable means.”
On appeal, Dang again hammered at the seizure of his money, contending it was unconstitutional. But appeals judges were unmoved.
A three-judge panel ruled this spring that the cash should go to the phone company, not the prison commissary.