A federal judge has ruled that FBI agents acted properly when they searched the California home of accused wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan moments after arresting him last year. At a Jan. 17 hearing in a New York courtroom, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman denied a motion by Kurniawan's attorneys to exclude evidence found during the search. Kurniawan must now decide whether to go to trial or change his plea of not guilty.
Agents arrested Kurniawan at his mother's Los Angeles-area home on the morning of March 8, 2012. During the arrest, agents conducted an initial search of the house and obtained a key to a locked room from Kurniawan, entered it and found what they claim was a wine-counterfeiting workshop. Only later that day did agents return with a search warrant.
In a motion to exclude the evidence, Kurniawan's lawyers claimed that the first, warrantless, search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. In a memorandum, Justice Department attorneys countered that, even without including the evidence of the FBI sweep that morning in its request for a search warrant, there was probable cause for a magistrate to issue it. The government lawyers noted that Kurniawan "on multiple occasions" had received shipments of empty bottles of very expensive wine which he had requested from a Manhattan restaurant and a New York collector and that last February he had tried to sell homemade counterfeit wine through a third party at a London auction. They also noted that the agents were concerned Kurniawan's mother might destroy evidence before they returned with a warrant.
Berman said from the bench, "The long and the short of my ruling is that, based on the totality of the circumstances, in my judgment the search warrant was clearly based on probable cause." Kurniawan, 36, sat in the courtroom, dressed in mismatched khaki pants and shirt with black sneakers, wearing his trademark eyeglasses with thick black frames. He showed no emotion as the judge announced his decision. He is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Berman scheduled a conference with the lawyers for Feb. 14 to determine what will happen next in the case. It appears that Kurniawan's options are to go to trial or try and negotiate a plea bargain. Besides being charged with selling counterfeit wine, Kurniawan is also accused of schemes to defraud a finance company by falsifying his application for a $3 million loan, and of double-pledging art works as collateral for additional loans from a New York auction house, and of attempting to defraud a California collector and the New York auction house. According to Kurniawan's attorney, Michael Proctor, his client remains "strong and focused on his case."
It was seven years ago this month that Acker Merrall & Condit held an auction in New York based on Kurniawan's cellar. Among the lots was a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1934 that sold for $12,925, a six-bottle lot of Roumier Bonnes Mares that sold for $28,955, and a 10-bottle lot of Château Cheval-Blanc 1947 that sold for $48,260. According to the indictment of Kurniawan, dated last May, all those wines were counterfeit.