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United States v. Felt

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

March 12, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ELIZABETH LOUISE FELT, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DANA L. CHRISTENSEN, CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant Elizabeth Louise Felt's Motion to Dismiss Indictment. (Doc. 15.) Felt argues that the indictment, which charges offense conduct ending in 2012, should be dismissed because: (1) assuming the indictment was properly sealed, it was sealed for an unreasonable length of time; and (2) prosecution would violate Felt's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

         Background

         Felt is charged with a single count of theft of government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641. (Doc. 1.) Felt allegedly collected Social Security benefits for a deceased person from February 2004 through September 2012.

         The Social Security Administration ("SSA") began investigating Felt in 2012 in response to a public referral alleging that Felt had been collecting SSA benefits intended for a beneficiary who died in 2004 while in Mexico with Felt.Special Agent Jacques Hansen handled the investigation. (Doc. 17-5 at 1.) By working with Customs and Border Protection, Hansen was able to learn of Felt's recent movements across the Mexico-United States border. (Doc. 17-5 at 2.) He determined that Felt was likely living in Mexico. (Doc. 17-5 at 2.)

         In early 2013, Hansen interviewed Felt's mother, who informed him that she had concealed Felt's presence during a prior interview. (Doc. 17-5 at 2.) Felt's mother stated that Felt left Missoula, Montana the day after that earlier interview and that Felt was likely somewhere in Latin America. (Doc. 17-5 at 2.) Hansen also spoke with Felt's attorney, who requested information about the investigation. (Doc. 17-5 at 2-3.) The attorney, Marc Geller, said that he would contact Hansen after talking to his client, but when Hansen and Geller spoke again, over a month later, Geller had not been in contact with Felt, whose last location was Tijuana, Mexico. (Doc. 17-5 at 3.) Although Hansen reviewed Felt's financial records and continued to interview witnesses through 2014, he was not able to locate her. (Doc. 17-5 at 3.)

         A grand jury indicted Felt in December 2014. The indictment was sealed upon issuance, and it was not unsealed until Felt's initial appearance before this Court following her arrest in Mexico in late 2018. Between the indictment and the arrest, several agencies attempted to find and apprehend Felt.

         Felt's arrest warrant was entered into the National Crime Information Center system in January 2015. (Doc. 17-4 at 1.) Felt proved difficult to locate, and the United States Marshal Service ("USMS") became involved in October 2015. (Doc. 17-5 at 3.) Deputy United States Marshal Chris Strommen worked on the case. (Doc. 17-4.) Strommen signed an affidavit averring that: (1) authorities attempted, but were unable, to arrest Felt in Mexico in March 2016, as the Mexican authorities needed more information to locate Felt; (2) Customs and Border Patrol monitored flight activity in an attempt to find Felt; (3) Strommen spoke with Attorney Geller, who gave Strommen a phone number that Geller believed to be Felt's but which in fact belonged to Felt's acquaintance; (4) Geller had no contact with Felt after 2013, and he believed that he never met her in person; (5) Felt's sister and mother, as well as the caretaker for Felt's brother, informed Strommen that they did not know where to find Felt; and (6) the USMS took measures to ensure that it would be notified if Felt attempted to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. (Doc. 17-4.)

         In October 2018, the USMS received new information regarding Felt's whereabouts in Mexico. (Doc. 17-4 at 3.) The USMS worked with Mexican authorities, which successfully arrested Felt in December 2018. (Doc. 17-4 at 3.) Felt appeared before the Southern District of California after she was turned over to U.S. authorities at the San Ysidro Point of Entry. (Doc. 17-4 at 3.)

         Discussion

         Non-capital offenses, including theft of government property, carry a five-year statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3282. The statute of limitations is tolled when a grand jury returns an indictment. Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(f); United States v. Bracy, 67 F.3d 1421, 1426 (9th Cir. 1995). Here, the indictment was returned within less than five years of the offense conduct and well within the statute of limitations. Felt nonetheless argues: (1) that the indictment was improperly sealed and that the statute of limitations has therefore run; and (2) that continued prosecution would violate Felt's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

         I. Improper Sealing

         Felt argues that the indictment was improperly sealed and that the five-year statute of limitations has accordingly run. The Court disagrees.

         Where an indictment is sealed to serve "legitimate prosecutorial objectives," the return of the sealed indictment tolls the statute of limitations. Bracy, 67 F.3d at 1427. Here, because Felt was not arrested until 2018, the sealing of the indictment was consistent with the relevant procedural rules. Local Criminal Rule 6 provides that "[i]ndictments are sealed until all named defendants have appeared or are in custody." Similarly, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e)(4) authorizes "[t]he magistrate judge to whom an indictment is ...


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