I picked up an argument in a Government Motion to Exclude Defendant’s Proffered Expert Witness in the Kepke prosecution, United States v. Kepke(N.D. Cal. Criminal No. 3:21-CR-00155-JD), Motion dated 8/5/22, here. In general, the Government claims that Kepke’s expert witness disclosures were too cryptic to understand the expert witness’s proffered testimony, but the Government inferred that the expert witness would improperly testify about the law. Here are the three key paragraphs I focus on (Motion pp, 7-9):
Expert witnesses are not permitted to offer opinions consisting of their interpretation of the law. See Hangarter v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 373 F.3d 998, 1018 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Mukhtar v. Cal. State Univ., Hayward, 299 F.3d 1053, 1066 n. 10 (9th Cir. 2002), overruled on other grounds by Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc., 740 F.3d 457, 467 (9th Cir. 2014)); see also Snap-Drape, Inc. v. Comm’r, 98 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996). “[I]instructing the jury as to the applicable law is the distinct and exclusive province of the court.” Nationwide Transp. Fin. V. Cass Info. Sys., Inc., 523, F.3d 1051, 1058-59 (9th Cir. 2008); see also United States v. Caputo, 517 F.3d 935, 942 (7th Cir. 2008) (“The only legal expert in a federal courtroom is the judge.”); United States v. Weitzenhoff, 35 F.3d 1275, 1287 (9th Cir. 1993); CZ Services, Inc. v. Express Scripts Holding Co., 3:18-cv-04217-JD, 2020 WL 4518978, at * 2 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2020) (“[L]egal opinions are not the proper subject of expert testimony. Reed v. Lieurance, 863 F.3d 1196, 1209 (9th Cir. 2017). An expert may not give opinions that are legal conclusions, United States v. Tamman, 782 F.3d 543, 552-53 (9th Cir. 2015), or attempt to advise the jury on the law, Strong v. Valdez Fine Foods, 724 F.3d 1042, 1046-47 (9th Cir. 2013).”).
In at least one criminal tax case, the Ninth Circuit approved expert testimony about the law where “the theory of the defense [was] that there [was] a good faith dispute as to the interpretation of the tax laws.” See United States v. Clardy, 612 F.2d 1139, 1153 (9th Cir. 1980) (citing United States v. Garber, 607 F.2d 92 (5th Cir. 1979) (distinguished by United States v. Burton, 737 F.2d 439, 444 (5th Cir. 1984)). But that does not mean that legal evidence is automatically admissible in all criminal tax trials. To the contrary, courts regularly exclude legal experts in criminal tax cases. See, e.g., United States v. Boulware, 558 F.3d 971, 974-75 (9th Cir. 2009) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony that specific “corporate distributions were legally non-taxable” as an impermissible legal opinion); see also United States v. Curtis, 782 F.2d 593, 598-600 (6th Cir. 1996) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony and distinguishing Garber); United States v. Harris, 942 F.2d 1125, 1132 n.6 (7th Cir. 1991) (evidence “may include expert testimony about case law, to the extent that the defendant claims actual reliance on that case law. Case law on which the defendant did not in fact rely is irrelevant because only the defendant’s subjective belief is at issue.”); United States v. Ingredient Tech. Corp., 698 F.2d 88, 96-97 (2d Cir. 1983) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony and distinguishing Garber); United States v. Alessa, 3:19-cr-00010, 2021 WL 4498638, at *4 (D. Nev. Sept. 30, 2021) (evidence of a conflict in the law is irrelevant if Defendant was not aware of the conflict).
Here, Mr. Read’s proposed testimony must be excluded because, reading between the lines (as we must because the disclosures do not reveal Mr. Read’s actual opinions), it seems likely that Mr. Read plans to testify about his understanding of the law. At best, Mr. Read’s opinion that certain offshore structures are permissible or even common is tantamount to testimony that, in his opinion, Defendant’s actions were legal. This is exactly the type of opinion that is prohibited under Ninth Circuit law because “‘[w]hen an expert undertakes to tell the jury what result to reach, this does not aid the jury in making a decision, but rather attempts to substitute the expert’s judgment for the jury’s.’” United States v. Diaz, 876 F.3d 1194, 1197 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Duncan, 42 F.3d 97, 101 (2d Cir. 1994)). And any minor probative value the proffered testimony might have would be substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, and misleading the jury.
This is fair argument, I suppose, to exclude or limit what the expert can testify to before the jury. The concern, I think, is that a jury may infer that a defendant relied upon the at least uncertain state of the law as the expert presents it to the jury without the defendant testifying that he in fact did rely (requiring the defendant to testify rather than choosing to remain silent at trial).
There is a related strategy to use legal uncertainty at the threshold of the case to argue to the judge (rather than the jury) that the law is sufficiently uncertain that a defendant cannot be prosecuted for violating that law. This argument is what I call the James issue, based on James v. United States, 366 U.S. 213 (1961), GS here, and James’ progeny. Basically, the concept is that, in order to convict for a crime requiring knowledge or intent to violate the law, the crime must be both known and knowable. Known goes to the defendant’s subjective intent which is a jury issue. Knowable goes to a purely legal issue, such as addressed in James, that the law is sufficiently certain to be knowable. The knowable inquiry is for the judge rather than for the jury. In James, the jury had convicted James thus finding that he had known what he thought was the law and intended to violate that “law.” The Supreme Court held that, regardless of his intent as found by the jury, the law was sufficiently uncertain that, as a matter of law, he could not be convicted of an intent to violate the law crime, such as tax crimes.
Over the years, I have addressed that knowable issue in several blogs (that can be picked up through searches on “known,” “knowable,” and “James,” but a good blog on the issues is Fourth Circuit Fuzzes the Issue as to Whether Legal Uncertainty Is an Issue for the Court(Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/5/18), here.