The rapid growth of technology and the ease of communication online has had many benefits, but has also led to a growth in criminal activity and online fraud. One way that Florida protects against widespread fraud is through Florida’s Organized Fraud statute. Under Florida Statutes, Sec. 817.034, anyone who “engages in a scheme to defraud and obtains property thereby” is guilty of organized fraud, also known as a “scheme to defraud”. Schemes to defraud are different from some other types of fraud, like using a stolen credit card or using false information in an application. Organized fraud involves a pattern of conduct, which is planned to take money or property from other people.
Penalties for organized fraud in Florida can be serious for those convicted. Punishments can vary depending on the nature of the activity and the amount taken from another person, including:
- First-degree felony charges if the amount is $50,000 or more (punishable by up to 30 years in prison, plus fines and restitution)
- Second-degree felony charges if the amount is $20,000 or more (punishable by up to 15 years in prison, plus fines and restitution)
- Third-degree felony charges if the amount is less than $20,000 (punishable by up to 5 years in prison, plus fines and restitution).
The amounts used for purposes of charging and sentencing are aggregate amounts, meaning that defrauding 1,000 people of $50 carries the same consequence as defrauding one person of $50,000.
Florida Statutes, Sec. 817.034(4)(b) allows prosecutors to charge a defendant with each act of communication made in furtherance of a scheme to defraud, if that communication was intended to obtain property from another person. For example, if a fraudster sends a person 10 different emails as part of the same overall scheme, they could potentially be charged with 10 counts of organized fraud.
What the State Must Prove in a Florida Organized Fraud Case
To prove the crime of Organized Fraud under Florida Statutes, Sec. 817.034, the State must prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Defendant engaged in a scheme to defraud. “Scheme to Defraud” for this purpose means a systematic, ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud one or more people. This can be done using false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, promises or willful misrepresentations of some future act by the Defendant.
- Defendant obtained property or something of value through the fraudulent scheme. “Obtain”, for this element, means temporarily or permanently depriving other people of their property or money. Property includes not only tangible items of value, but also intangible items such as rights to property or claims to land.
Defenses to a Charge of Organized Fraud in Florida
Due to the severe potential penalties for organized fraud in Florida, someone facing investigation or charges must vigorously defend themselves through the legal process. Some common defenses when charged with a scheme to defraud include:
- Lack of Intent. In an organized fraud case, prosecutors must show that the Defendant communicated with others with intent to wrongfully take their money or property. If the Defendant received something of value, but never intended to participate in a fraudulent scheme, they may bear some responsibility for the taking but not for a charge of organized fraud.
- Identity. Prosecutors must identify the Defendant as the person responsible for the fraudulent scheme, which is not always as clear-cut as it seems. An online communication, for instance, may have originated from some other sender besides the person eventually charged with the crime. The prosecution must be able to show, through verifiable documentation or other proof, that the person charged is the person who committed the fraud.
- Disputes over Value. Even if there is some liability for the communication or scheme to obtain property, there could be disagreement over the amount allegedly obtained. If the State alleges a Defendant took over $50,000 worth of property, but the Defendant states it was only $1,000, that could mean the difference between a year in jail or 25 years in prison. Prosecutors must be able to support their allegations regarding the amount taken through clear evidence, otherwise the charge may not hold up through a jury trial.
- Statute of Limitations. Charges for a Scheme to Defraud must be brought within 5 years (subject to limited exceptions), so a Defendant cannot be “surprised” by new charges for an act that allegedly took place many years ago. The statute of limitations is important in fraud cases because evidence important to the State’s allegations – or the accused’s defense – can get lost or destroyed over time.
The Tampa Criminal Defense Team at Trombley & Hanes Can Help If You Have Been Charged with Organized Fraud in Florida
If a person faces any level of charge for organized fraud in Florida, they should contact an experienced and capable Tampa criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The consequences of a charge and conviction for schemes to defraud can include years in prison, thousands of dollars in fines and costs, and destructive impacts on a person’s career and reputation. If charged, you need to mount a vigorous defense from Day One with the help of a criminal defense attorney that has handled these cases before. At Trombley & Hanes, we are familiar with the tactics prosecutors will use to obtain guilty pleas and convictions, and we also know the important legal defenses you may have. Contact us today for help.