U.S. First Circuit - The FindLaw 1st Circuit Court of Appeals News and Information Blog

Man Who Used Fake Trade Name to Bilk $200K Loses Appeal of Sentence

A man who was criminally convicted for having used a fake trade name to bilk thousands of victims into writing him checks failed to get the First Circuit to overturn his sentence. It appears that unless fortune smiles upon Darren Stokes, his four-year sentence in federal prison will stand.

The court found that no reasonable expectation of privacy exists in pieces of mail that do not feature a potential defendant's personal address. In his fraud scheme, Stokes not only used a phony address, but also a fake name.

The Scam

The mail fraud scam involved a fictitious business entity from which the defendant sent thousands upon thousands of bogus faxes using letterhead and formats that led the recipients to believe that the faxes were coming from various trade associations. He accomplished this by purchasing a list of business fax numbers and then hiring a company to bombard small business with tailored request to renew dues and subscriptions.

A substantial number of victims fell for the scheme and Stokes collected approximately $200,000 over the years. His scheme only began to unravel when the real trade associations that Stokes had impersonated got wind of his activities.

Plea and Retraction

Stokes pleaded guilty to a handful of fraud charges and received a sentence substantially more lenient than he otherwise might have suffered if the prosecutor really pushed. However, he later retracted his plea on the grounds that his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated when post offices started seizing envelopes en-route to the various addresses where Stokes collected his fraudulently-obtained checks.

Various Reasons, No R.E.P.

The circuit court upheld the lower court ruling and disregarded Stokes's theory with regards to the Fourth Amendment. No person can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy in mail that neither bares their address or name as a sender or recipient. Courts have generally been reluctant to grant an R.E.P. in mail, anyway. And in Stokes's case particularly, a reasonable expectation of privacy cannot exist in those pieces of mail that neither bared Stokes's personal address or name, nor could be supported by further policy reasons from increased government scrutiny.

As a whole, this First Circuit case reminds criminal defendants that they must not rely on the Fourth Amendment to completely shield the contents of their parcels in the mail (or their records). The law is complex and, arguably, incongruous. Send carefully.

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