Our firm won another federal criminal case last week when federal prosecutors dismissed charges against our client after a trial date was set. Politico reported on the case which involved an Iranian-born American citizen and medical researcher in Kentucky who was charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran known as the ITSR (Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations).
The ITSR covers a lot of ground. Most relevantly in this case, ITSR imposes a trade embargo between the U.S. and Iran, prohibiting Iranians and Americans from importing or exporting goods between the countries without a license. It is a federal crime to export goods to Iran without a license if you know that ITSR requires one.
Our client, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, was one of three defendants charged with unlawfully exporting goods to Iran. The other two were Dr. Soleimani, a world renowned medical researcher from Iran and former professor to our client, and another one of Dr. Soleimani’s former students living in the U.S.
The government charged our client and her co-defendants with violating the ITSR after federal agents gained access to Dr. Soleimani’s emails, which showed that Dr. Soleimani asked one of his former students to buy him several vials of medical proteins, which are used in stem cell research, cancer research, and for repairing wounded organs. The emails also showed Dr. Soleimani asking our client to receive the proteins from his other former student and bring them to him in Iran during her next family visit.
In September 2016, while on her way to Iran, federal agents stopped our client at the airport, asked her questions about her background and her reasons for traveling to Iran, and seized the medical proteins from her luggage before letting her board her plane. Almost two years later, our client was again stopped by agents on her way to visit family in Iran, and she was asked about the medical proteins that were in her luggage before. She explained that she did not know she needed a license to take the proteins and that they are used for medical research, after which the agents let her board her plane.
That was the end of it, or so our client thought, until she was arrested several months later by federal agents in her living room, over two years after the agents seized the proteins from her luggage and on the same day that the U.S. reinstated sanctions on Iran. In fact, the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta charged Dr. Soleimani just a month after President Trump announced that the U.S. would be pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and imposing more sanctions on Iran.
As we wrote our previous blog, we entered the case and filed a motion to dismiss the indictment against our client, arguing that she was not engaged in “exporting goods” simply by agreeing to take some medical proteins to her mentor in Iran as a personal favor to him while visiting her family. And even if her actions technically constituted “exporting goods,” the proteins fell under the ITSR’s exception for exporting medicine, medical devices, and humanitarian aid. We also argued that the ITSR is so vague that it fails to provide clear notice to the public regarding what can be exported to Iran without a license.
While the judge ultimately denied our motion, it sent a strong signal to the prosecutors that we were ready to take this case all the way to trial and get our client acquitted by a jury. Before we could get to trial, however, the U.S. and Iran agreed to a “prisoner swap” involving Dr. Soleimani, and he was sent back to Iran in exchange for an American prisoner. After this swap, prosecutors turned their attention on the remaining defendants, including our client.
Facing pressure from prosecutors, our client’s co-defendant decided to plead guilty. We advised our client, however, that we were ready to fight for her if she elected to go to trial. With our client’s approval, we began preparing a defense centering around her lack of knowledge of the ITSR’s licensing requirements and the fact that medical proteins are life-saving medical materials exempted from the ITSR. When federal prosecutors asked whether our client wanted to accept the government’s plea offer, we informed them that we were ready for trial. Shortly after, the judge set the case for trial in early 2020.
Rather than try their chances in a trial, however, the federal government notified us that they were dismissing the charges against our client. We are trial lawyers, and we looked forward to clearing our client’s name in court, but this was the best possible outcome for our client. Now she can move forward with her life. And though this was an unusual case that involved a “prisoner swap” and the complications of U.S. foreign policy, the lesson here is clear—always prepare as if you are going to trial, because sometimes the prosecution blinks.
Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of our firm’s “The Federal Docket” and a contributor to Mercer Law Review’s Annual Survey in the areas of federal law. Tom was named a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer by The National Trial Lawyers, and is a recognized expert in federal sentencing law. He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.