Rudy Kurniawan is fighting an uphill battle to have his conviction for counterfeiting wine tossed out. Lawyers for the 38-year-old Indonesian submitted their final brief to a New York federal appeals court last week. A panel of appellate judges is expected to hear oral arguments on the case in December.
Much of Kurniawan's appeal has centered on tossing out the extensive evidence FBI agents found when they searched his Arcadia, Calif., home on the day of his arrest in March 2012. His lawyers claim that search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.
As Kurniawan stood handcuffed on his front lawn, agents entered the premises to make a "protective sweep." They found reams of counterfeiting materials, including 18,000 fake wine labels. Only later that day did the agents go to a magistrate to "seek a warrant to 'search' for what they had already found," as the defense brief puts it.
"[Were] the agents sweeping for threats to their safety while they examined 'spreadsheets detailing wine purchases and sales?'" asked lead defense lawyer Jerry Mooney in his brief, referring to documents found in a locked room. "How did they determine these spreadsheets were 'apparently created by Kurniawan,'" as the application for the search warrant stated. Did the agents' search exceed the need to "make sure no nefarious person was lurking about the house?" wrote Mooney.
Perhaps not, suggests Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor and former chief appellate attorney for the Southern District of New York, where Kurniawan was tried. "I know a wine case is not a crack [cocaine] case," Richman told Wine Spectator, "but agents take the risk pretty seriously. The law gives them decent leeway to be sure they are protected, even if it's a sick old mom and a wine guy. We do live in a gun culture."
In a pretrial hearing in 2013, a previous lawyer for Kurniawan, Michael Proctor, fought to suppress the physical evidence found during the sweep. District Judge Richard Berman did not rule on whether the agents acted improperly, as even the prosecution admitted that they may have. Instead, Berman ruled that even if potentially "tainted" evidence were excised from the application, there was still "probable cause" to issue the search warrant, given the extensive evidence provided from the Justice Department’s multi-year investigation of Kurniawan's wine dealings.
The defense now wants the appeals panel to overturn Berman's ruling. It argues that the judge "improperly found that there was probable cause for the issuance of the warrant." And it asks that the case be remanded to the trial court "for further proceedings, including an evidentiary hearing."
That will likely be an uphill battle, according to Richman. "It's a standard move from the government's perspective to offer arguments that eliminate the need for a hearing and just go with the papers [already filed]," he said. "At this stage, nobody wants to do extra fact finding.
Kurniawan was convicted of wire and mail fraud in late 2013. He is serving a 10-year sentence at a correctional facility in California. Following his expected release in 2020, the government has stated that it will deport him to his home country of Indonesia.