Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mandatory Victim Restitution Act - Is Your Spouse Liable For Restitution Judgments?

The case of United States v. Berger, No. 08-50415 (9th Cir., Jul. 31, 2009), reminds us of the misfortune an innocent spouse might incur due to the criminal conduct of his or her spouse.  In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the community property, including that portion which otherwise would be awarded upon dissolution of marriage to an innocent spouse, may utilized under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA) (18 U.S.C. § 3663(a)) to satisfy a restitution judgment obtained against a criminally liable spouse. This was even the case where the proceeds of the fraud were not used to purchase the property that was owned by an innocent spouse.


In 1986, while Richard Berger (Richard) and Cornella Berger (Cornella) were married, Richard joined a partnership (Partnership) which he and others formed for the purpose of purchasing a 290-unit apartment complex (Property). 

During the relevant period, Richard served as President and CEO of Craig Electronics (Craig), an electronics wholesaler. A federal grand jury returned an indictment, charging Richard with 36 counts of conspiracy, loan fraud, falsifying corporate books, and other securities fraud violations committed at Craig. After a jury trial, Richard was found guilty on 12 of those counts. Cornella was not involved in any wrongdoing associated with the illegal scheme.  No proceeds from the fraud scheme were invested in the Property.

As part of his sentence, Richard was ordered, pursuant to the MVRA, to pay restitution of just over $3.14 million to the victims of his fraud.  Thereafter, Richard consented to the Partnership’s entering into a contract to sell the Property. The district court ordered that Richard’s approximately $1.5 million share of the proceeds from the sale of the Property (the Proceeds) be deposited with the court.

The government filed an application to disburse the Proceeds to the victims of Richard’s fraud who were entitled to receive restitution. Cornella opposed the application, arguing that she was entitled to one-half of the Proceeds as her community property share.

Over Cornella’s objection, the district court granted the government’s application to disburse the entire sum of the Proceeds to the victims. Cornella appealed.  Cornella claims that the district court erred by failing to award her a one-half interest in the Proceeds.


Cornella argued that the asset distribution should have been analyzed under case law governing criminal forfeiture, citing United States v. Lester, 85 F.3d 1409 (9th Cir. 1996) (holding that wife’s one-half interest in portion of community property was not liable to criminal forfeiture imposed on her husband).  The appellate court noted that restitution and forfeiture are distinct asset collection regimes, governed by different rules. Whereas criminal forfeiture is a judgment against a person convicted of a crime (id., at 1413), a restitution order under the MVRA is “a lien in favor of the United States on all property and rights to property of the person fined.” 18 U.S.C. § 3613(c) (emphasis added).  Thus, the Ninth Circuit analyzed the allocation of restitution funds using the law governing MVRA restitution.

Under the MVRA, the government may enforce a judgment imposing a fine in accordance with the practices and procedures for the enforcement of a civil judgment under Federal law or State law.  18 U.S.C. § 3613(a).  Thus, the appellate court looked to California law to determine Richard's property rights in the Proceeds.

Cornella and the government agreed that the Proceeds were community property. In the ordinary case, “the community estate is liable for a debt incurred by either spouse before or during marriage, regardless of which spouse has the management and control of the property and regardless of whether one or both spouses are parties to the debt or to a judgment for the debt.” Cal. Fam. Code § 910(a).  Thus, even though Richard was the only spouse who was a party to the restitution judgment, under the MVRA and California law the Proceeds’ community property status made Cornella liable for that debt, even though she was entirely innocent with respect to Richard's misdeeds.


In handling a white collar criminal case, it is critical to look at restitution early on. This can affect strategy in the case and planning for future assets and family law issues. The restitution amounts in some criminal cases can influence family decisions, financial planning, and so on.  Moreover, payment of restitution early in the case can make a huge difference in the sentence. This legal issue is just one factor

Any questions or comments should be directed to: Tracy Green is a principal at Green and Associates in Los Angeles, California. The firm focuses its practice on the representation of professionals and businesses in civil, business, administrative and criminal proceedings. Their website is:

800 West 6th Street, Suite 450
Los Angeles, California 90017


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