New Wine In Old Wineskins

Mail fraud, wire fraud, … wine fraud? More like highfalutin wine fraud.

Last month, a federal district court in New York issued a 10-year sentence to a renowned wine dealer, collector, and connoisseur who was convicted of running a multimillion-dollar counterfeiting operation. The defendant sold and consigned his counterfeit wine to auction houses, wine enthusiasts, and some of the wealthiest people in the country—billionaires, I tell you—and he sold them millions of dollars’ worth of wine he concocted in his home. He must have had a good nose for it, too, because the operation was elaborate: he reportedly took empty bottles of rare and expensive wines, blended his own brew until it resembled the good stuff, poured the new wine into the old wineskins, so to speak, and even created fake labels that fooled a lot of people.

At sentencing, his lawyer argued for a lower sentence in part because the fraud caused less harm than others since the victims were exceedingly wealthy. Taking a million dollars from a billionaire, in other words, is not the same as stripping a senior citizen of his million-dollar life savings. Prosecutors, in fact, argue a similar point everyday when they prosecute fraud cases involving vulnerable victims.

In response, this prosecutor expressed shock that a lawyer would argue a double standard for theft from the rich than from the poor, and ultimately, the lawyer’s argument didn’t carry the day.

But the argument was picked up by other members of the criminal defense bar, one of whom authored a spirited defense of it, including these lines:

“At the sentencing hearing, [defendant’s] attorney argued, reasonably I believe, that his client should be treated somewhat less severely since the victims were exceedingly wealthy.

That argument provoked the prosecutor to the Captain Renault-like response that it was ‘quite shocking’ for a lawyer to argue for a different standard for theft from the rich than from the poor.

That retort reminded me of Anatole France’s immortal line … ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, or steal loaves of bread.'”

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