United States v. Bryan Singer (11th Cir. June 2020)

The Federal Docket

July 7, 2020

Exporting Technology/Elements – Under 50 U.S.C. § 1705 and 15 C.F.R. § 746.2(a), the government must show that a defendant knew his conduct was violative.

Attempt Crimes/Substantial Step – There is sufficient evidence to support a finding of a substantial step if the evidence does not eliminate the possibility of a substantial step being taken.

Jury Instructions – A district court does not err when it declines to give a proposed jury instruction verbatim if it captures the substance of that instruction.

Sentencing Guidelines – A district court’s application of the two-point enhancement for obstruction of justice for the defendant’s perjured testimony at trial was proper where the court identified the specific testimony at issue, independently evaluated it, and where the record supported the finding.

Bryan Singer was convicted for knowingly attempting to export technology without a license to Cuba under 50 U.S.C. § 1705 and 15 C.F.R. § 746.2(a). The technology was “designated . . . as having the potential to affect national security and anti-terrorism efforts.”

On appeal, Singer raised multiple claims. First, he argued the district court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal because the government failed to prove he knew the technology was subject to export restrictions. He also argued that the district court erred because there was insufficient evidence to establish that he took a substantial step in exporting the technology in violation of the Act. Finally, Singer claimed that the court erred by failing to give his proposed jury instruction on the ignorance of law and by applying a two-level sentence enhancement for obstruction of justice.

The Court affirmed Singer’s conviction. The Court first acknowledged that the government did in fact need to prove willfulness in “that Singer knew of the facts that made his conduct a violation of” §§ 1705 and 746.2(a), since the exportation of goods is not obviously evil or inherently bad sufficient to automatically satisfy the willfulness requirement. The Court noted that this follows the general rule, “when it comes to crimes involving complex regulatory schemes,” to avoid punishing “individuals engaged in conduct they reasonably believe[] to be innocent.”

The Court ultimately held that there was no error, however, because the government presented sufficient evidence to satisfy the knowledge standard. The government demonstrated that Singer was given repeated warnings to comply with commerce regulations, was warned of the requirement of an export license, and introduced Singer’s own letters that suggested he knew he needed a license. Further, the Court noted that lying to officers about what he was declaring and hiding the technology in a hidden compartment supported the conclusion that Singer knew he was not allowed to export the technology.

The Court also held that there was no error from the district court because “a reasonable jury had sufficient evidence to find that Singer took a substantial step.” The evidence allowed the jury to find that Singer did not cancel his initial Cuba trip and did in fact later travel to Cuba.

The Court further held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by “declin[ing] to give Singer’s proposed instruction” of ignorance of the law because the court instructed the jury to “the substance of Singer’s proposed instruction in the charge it gave,” so Singer’s defense was not impaired. Singer had proposed an instruction stating that, “As a general rule, ignorance of the law is no excuse. However, in this case ignorance of the law is a defense to crimes charged against the defendant.” The Court instead instructed the jury that it had to find that “the Defendant knew that exportation or sending of the merchandise was contrary to law or regulation.” This was an accurate statement of law that captured the substance of the defendant’s proposed instruction.

The Court also held that the district court did not err in applying the two-point enhancement under U.S.S.G. 3C1.1 based on Singer committing perjury while testifying at trial when he stated that he hid the relevant material from Cuban, not American, authorities.

First, the court properly made the required findings because it identified the specific testimony that was false after independently evaluating the issue and sufficiently explaining its conclusion. Second, the evidence on the record supported that finding. The Court noted that the false testimony was material because Singer, by testifying that he was hiding the technology from Cuban authorities and not the United States, was attempting to mislead the jury as to his knowledge that his conduct was unlawful.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida

Opinion by Rosenbaum, joined by J. Pryor and Branch

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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