In Hesser v. United States, No. 19-13297 (July 13, 2022) (Lagoa, Brasher, Tjoflat), the Court reversed the partial denial of a federal prisoner’s 2255 motion.
The movant alleged that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to move for a Rule 29 judgment of acquittal after the government’s case in chief. The district court granted the 2255 motion for three counts of tax fraud—the Eleventh Circuit on direct appeal had already held that the evidence was insufficient and affirmed based on the deferential standard of review. But the district court denied the 2255 motion with respect to a conviction for attempted tax evasion. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that this was error because, had counsel filed a Rule 29 motion after the government’s case, the district court would have been required to grant it.
The Court explained that the government’s evidence was insufficient because it did not establish an affirmative act constituting attempted tax evasion. Although the defendant hid gold in his house with the purpose of hiding it from the IRS, the government failed to prove that he actually owned the gold and that it was therefore subject to a tax levied on him. If the gold was not subject to a tax, then attempting to conceal it from the IRS was not a crime, even if the defendant made a mistake of law (not fact) by believing that it was. In addition, while the defendant suspiciously quitclaimed his house to a newly created trust the government never proved how doing that would have affected his tax liability; there was no tax lien on his house at the time he transferred the house to a trust.