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United States v. Brown

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 15, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Michael Mancil Brown, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: May 3, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville. No. 3:13-cr-00118-1-Billy Roy Wilson, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          J. Alex Little, BONE MCALLESTER NORTON PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Byron M. Jones, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          J. Alex Little, BONE MCALLESTER NORTON PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Byron M. Jones, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Nashville, Tennessee, Anthony V. Teelucksingh, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

          Before: COLE, Chief Judge; SUTTON and KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SUTTON, Circuit Judge.

         When criminal-law cases imitate art, they do not always choose its highest form. In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Dr. Evil develops a plan to steal a nuclear warhead and to hold the world hostage for $1 million. This was not, Dr. Evil's deputy pointed out, all that much money for a 1990s global criminal enterprise. But it was enough for an anonymous extortionist in today's case, who apparently was familiar with the movie and who chose some features of it as signatures of his 2012 crime. Assuming the nom de guerre "Dr. Evil, " the individual demanded $1 million in Bitcoin in exchange for an encryption key to Mitt Romney's unreleased tax returns. The extortionist claimed to have stolen Romney's returns from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he posted a taunting, digitally altered image of Mike Myers's Dr. Evil, wearing a Secret Service badge, in the lobby of the accounting firm's offices in Franklin, Tennessee.

         A trail of digital breadcrumbs led law enforcement to Tennessean Michael Brown. It turned out that Brown never stole Romney's returns. And his attempt to extort PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Democratic and Republican parties, and the public earned Brown twelve convictions for wire fraud and extortion, a four year prison sentence, and an order to pay over $200, 000 in restitution. Brown appeals his convictions on the grounds that the Secret Service's search warrant lacked probable cause and that he was prejudiced by the trial judge's decision to allow questions from the jury. Brown also appeals the obstruction of justice enhancement in the district court's calculation of his sentence. We affirm Brown's convictions but vacate his sentence.

         I.

         On August 28, 2012, a padded envelope arrived at the Franklin, Tennessee office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting and professional services firm. The envelope contained a flash drive and a letter, which explained that the anonymous sender had gained access to the firm's network and stolen the unreleased tax documents of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his wife Ann. To "Stop Release" of those tax records, all PricewaterhouseCoopers had to do was deposit one million dollars in Bitcoin-a virtual, sovereign-free currency-into a specified account. App. R. 34 at 4. The encrypted tax files on the thumb drive would go to every major media outlet, the sender said, and the encryption key would become public if no one paid him before September 28. At "the same time, " the letter stated, "other interested ...


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