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Wine Counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan Appeals Conviction

'Dr. Conti' argues FBI search of his home was unlawful and counterfeiting evidence should be suppressed

Peter Hellman
Posted: April 15, 2015

Lawyers for Rudy Kurniawan filed an appeal in New York on Monday challenging his 2013 conviction on charges of conspiracy to sell counterfeit wine. Their main argument is that an FBI search of Kurniawan's home, which turned up extensive evidence of counterfeiting, was unlawful and that evidence should have been suppressed. If the appeals court agrees, it could conceivably order a new trial.

The Indonesian national is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a California federal prison, the only person ever tried and convicted of wine counterfeiting in U.S. federal court. He was also convicted of defrauding a finance company.

In a filing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Kurniawan's legal team, led by attorney Jerry Mooney, made three claims: First, that the two searches of Kurniawan’s home in Arcadia, Calif., on the morning of his arrest were improper and the fruits of those searches should be suppressed; second, that multiple charges were improperly combined in the indictment, making it difficult for the jury to sort them out; and finally, that the enormous prices that wealthy collectors paid for Kurniawan’s fake wines “greatly exaggerated” the real financial impact on them, resulting in more jail time for Kurniawan than he might otherwise have gotten.

The Justice department had no comment on the appeal. Its response to the court is due by July 10.

The first claim is based on the undisputed narrative of what happened at the time of Kurniawan’s arrest on March 8, 2012. As soon as he opened his front door at 6 a.m., FBI agents with an arrest warrant handcuffed him on the front lawn. The agents did not yet have a search warrant but entered the house to make a protective sweep of the premises to make sure no armed person was lurking.

During that sweep, they observed evidence of wine counterfeiting activity in plain sight, including bottles with their labels being soaked off in a kitchen sink. When they came upon a locked room, they opened it with a key from Kurniawan's pocket and discovered a wine-counterfeiting workshop. Later that day, having obtained a search warrant, the agents returned to the house, conducted a detailed search, and hauled away boxes of evidence.

In his brief, Mooney claims that the initial search and the reentry with the key "expanded into a general search" and went on for “20 to 30 minutes," exceeding any need to secure the safety of the agents. As for the room they unlocked, Mooney claimed that all the agents needed to do was make a cursory inspection for dangerous people. "It's not as if there was a person who was unaccounted for in the house," Mooney told Wine Spectator. "If the agents felt they needed to preserve evidence, they should have simply secured the house while they applied for a search warrant."

Kurniawan’s initial trial lawyer, Michael Proctor, also argued in a pretrial motion in 2012 that the FBI's search violated his client’s Fourth Amendment rights. Prosecutors responded that, "even if portions of the broader protective sweep were unlawful, there is sufficient untainted evidence to support the warrant." That evidence included records of Kurniawan's extensive purchases of counterfeit-related supplies, legally obtained by an earlier warrant to search his email account.

Trial Judge Richard Berman ruled in favor of the government, noting that the agents had acted "in good faith" and that "there was more than ample information provided by law enforcement in support of the search warrant for Kurniawan's home."

During the trial, many legal analysts were puzzled at Kurniawan's refusal to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors despite overwhelming evidence against him. Mooney said that the reason he elected to go to trial was that, if convicted, it was the only way to preserve his right to appeal the FBI search.

What happens if the court rules that the evidence was tainted and should be suppressed? It could order a retrial. That seems unlikely, but if it did happen, a source familiar with the case believes that the government would release Kurniawan based on time served rather than re-try him. As an illegal alien, he would be immediately deported to Indonesia. “Rudy will have already served at least four years," said the source. "The appeals court judges could decide that that is enough time for selling fake juice.”

John Albritton
California —  April 16, 2015 2:13am ET
He should have gotten a lot more than 10 years...

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