Having practiced as a prosecutor and/or criminal defense attorney for over twenty years in Miami, and throughout South Florida, one thing I’ve noticed is that law enforcement seems to be rather unpredictable as to what alleged crimes they choose to investigate. Some offenses get a pass, while others become the focus of law enforcement, who choose to use unlimited resources to investigate, and ultimately, to make arrests. I often refer to it as “spinning the wheel of justice.” If the wheel lands on something that you’re involved with, beware.
One case that I want to share with you doesn’t concern the typical crime subject matters like drugs, fraud and/or violence. No, something far more sinister and dangerous, “snow peas.” That’s right, I said, “snow peas.”
My client, Pedro Gonzalez, forty-five years old, had never been in trouble before. He and his wife of eighteen years had two children, ages thirteen and eleven. Pedro was dedicated to his family, attended Catholic mass regularly, and was the leader of their sons Boy Scout Troop. My client was a co-owner of a company that imported snow peas from Guatemala. One day, my client heard some news that forever changed his life. He learned that he was under federal criminal investigation for his role in a conspiracy involving illegally importing snow peas into the U.S. that had not first been properly tested.
Upon learning that he was a target of the investigation, Pedro hired me immediately. During our initial interview, he described that the only items that his company imports is snow peas. He swore that almost all of the snow peas that he imported into the U.S. had been done by the letter of the law. However, he admitted to me that recently, he brought into the U.S. several shipments that were labeled to be transported to Europe. What the defendant and his partner were doing was removing portions of the Europe bound shipments and then selling them to another U.S. company who then sold them to U.S. groceries and restaurants. The problem was that those snow peas were never tested by the government.
When I was signing up the case, I thought, “With all the people posing significant problems for our government, they’re going after those who import snow peas?” I then thought, “Perhaps after resolving the Osama Bin Laden matter, they have now moved on to the second thing on their “To Do List,” which must be to investigate and capture the evil snow pea importers.”
The lead investigator for the government didn t take such a light approach to the subject matter. Fortunately, the prosecutor did. We both made jokes to each other about how we’d be battling it out over the next few months concerning a “snow pea guy.” Regardless of the levity, he had a job to do after the agent brought him a case evidencing a violation of federal law.
In slight defense of the government, I should reveal that the FDA takes the position that snow peas imported from certain Guatemalan snow peas suppliers have an extremely high incidence of being contaminated with hazardous levels of pesticides. As a result, those who use Guatemalan snow pea suppliers are mandated by FDA regulations to hold the merchandise at their premises until the merchandise has been tested for pesticides. The Guatemalan company that my client was receiving snow pea shipments from was on the government’s automatic hold list. It was never proven that any of the snow peas that my client assisted in putting in the stream of commerce ever were contaminated and/or ever made any ultimate consumer sick in any way.
My first move was to meet with both the agents involved as well as the prosecutor to see if there was a way to avoid arrest and prosecution. With no assurances from the government, my client and I met with them. In the approximately two hour meeting at the U.S. Attorney s Office, my client poured his heart out. He answered all of their questions. He supplied them with very helpful information about those that he did business with who were involved in the conspiracy. He shed many tears clearly demonstrating how remorseful he was. I thought the chances were good that he would be given a pass, meaning that he would be used as a government witness and avoid being arrested and labeled a defendant.
Months went by before receiving that dreadful call. It was the prosecutor who insisted that he had to indict both my client and his partner. Nothing I said could persuade him otherwise. He did give me every possible concession. My client could avoid arrest by self surrendering to the U.S. Marshals, ensuring only a few hours in custody. Additionally, he would be released from jail on a personal surety bond, which didn t require having to pay any money to be released.
We worked out a plea agreement that seemed to ensure that my client wouldn’t spend any additional time in jail. However, one of the problems was that as a result of his guilty plea, he would become a convicted felon. He would also face all the consequences that go along with a federal criminal conviction.
Fortunately, the sentencing judge agreed that jail wasn’t appropriate. He even joked about the fact that we were dealing with snow pea importers instead of the typical drug trafficker.
I’m still shaking my head in disbelief that my client and his partner were actually prosecuted for this offense. All I keep thinking is, “Snow peas? Are you kidding me?” I acknowledge that they broke the law, however, I am just amazed that with the limited federal resources available to fight crime, that this is where so much effort was spent.
There are many lessons from this case. First, you’re never safe. If you think the Government won’t waste resources to prosecute you for that “minor” thing you’re involved with, think again. Additionally, it again reminds me that justice can be very random. Some who do serious stuff fly under the radar with no consequences. Others, like Pedro, were unable to avoid criminal prosecution, in spite of every best effort. Unfortunately for him, the “wheel of justice” landed on “snow peas.”