Thursday, January 16, 2014
One of the increasing incursions into constitutional rights in the white-collar area is the expansion of the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. In general, that doctrine provides that an individual or entity required by law to maintain for regulatory purposes certain records has no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce them to the government.
The Second Circuit last month, in affirming a contempt finding against an individual for failing to produce to a grand jury records of foreign bank accounts mandated to be kept by regulations promulgated pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 CFR 1012.420 ("BSA"), held, in accord with prior rulings by other circuits, that the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination pertains to the production of such records. In Re Grand Jury Subpoena Dated February 2, 2012, (13-403-CV, Dec. 19, 2013).
The individual contended that he had a Fifth Amendment right to refuse to comply with a grand jury subpoena for foreign bank records. He claimed that the subpoena put him in a Catch-22 position: produce documents that might incriminate him or confirm that he failed to maintain records of his foreign bank accounts, which also might incriminate him. The court essentially said "tough," and affirmed the contempt order.
The court first considered whether the "act of production" doctrine (see United States v. Hubbell, 500 U.S. 27 (2000)) applied to "required records." Under that doctrine, generally a person could on Fifth Amendment grounds resist a subpoena for the production of records unless the government could demonstrate it was a "foregone conclusion" that the person actually possessed such records. Although the contents of the records, as in the case of "required records," might not be privileged, by producing them the individual essentially incriminated herself by its production by admitting, among other things, that she possessed such records. The court held that the Fifth Amendment did not apply to required records, either as to the content of or production of such records, and thus the "act of production" privilege, a form of Fifth Amendment protection, did not apply.
The court then applied the three-prong test of Grosso v. United States, 390 U.S. 62 (1968), to determine whether the required records doctrine applied to the BSA regulation. That test provides, first, that the purpose of the legal requirement must be "essentially regulatory;" second, that the information sought must be of a type "customarily kept;" and third, that the records must have "public aspects" which make them at least analogous to public documents. The court then held that the regulation, although it was designed in part to facilitate criminal prosecutions, was "essentially regulatory" in that it did not target only those suspected of criminal activity since possession of foreign bank accounts by itself was not unlawful. Second, it held that the records were "customarily kept" since holders of bank accounts are likely to be aware of or have records of the details of their accounts. Third, the court held that "records lawfully required to be kept" for purposes of constitutional analysis by definition have "public aspects." Practically, such a finding eliminated this third prong as an independent prerequisite for application of the exception.
In sum, the court essentially ruled that any records ordinarily kept by individuals that are required to be made available to governmental authorities pursuant to a law not primarily designed to detect criminal activity lack Fifth Amendment protection.
Thus, the decision essentially gives federal prosecutors the ability to subpoena any person and demand that she produce any foreign bank records she possesses, even absent any knowledge or suspicion that she has such an account. To be sure, in this case, and virtually all other reported cases involving subpoenas of foreign bank accounts, the government appears to have had a considerable basis to believe the person subpoenaed does have a foreign bank account. The Second Circuit's ruling, however, at least implicitly, does not require that such governmental knowledge be a prerequisite for an enforceable subpoena for foreign accounts. "Fishing expeditions" for foreign bank account information appear to be allowed.
I would not be surprised, therefore, to see a considerable increase in the number of governmental subpoenas for records of foreign bank accounts, and perhaps the addition of a boilerplate request for foreign bank records in other subpoenas for financial records. As they say, there's no harm in asking.