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Ruling in Forced Labor Case of US v. Sabhnani, No. 08-3720

By FindLaw Staff on March 25, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In US v. Sabhnani, No. 08-3720, defendants' forced labor, harboring aliens, peonage, and document servitude convictions are affirmed, on the grounds that 1) the district court did not err in denying defendants' motion for a change of venue because the prosecution's statements regarding the character of the crimes were proper in the context in which they were made: bail hearings in which the prosecutors were arguing that defendants were a danger to the victims and their families, justifying an order of pretrial detention; 2) the pretrial publicity was not so pervasive and prejudicial as to have created a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial could not be conducted; 3) the district court acted well within its discretion in determining that the evidence proffered by defendants in support of their motion to require a psychiatric examination of a prosecution witness was insufficient; 4) the district court's instruction on willfulness, considered in the context of the aiding and abetting instruction as a whole, did not render the instructions confusing; and 5) the existence of a criminal agreement between two persons could be inferred from circumstantial evidence.  However, the court reversed the district court's restitution order because the district court erred in awarding overtime pay.

As the court wrote: "Defendants-Appellants Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani and Varsha Mahender Sabhnani appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Spatt, J.). Following a jury trial, both defendants were convicted on counts of forced labor, harboring aliens, peonage, and document servitude, as well as conspiracy to commit each of the substantive offenses, with Mahender Sabhnani receiving a sentence of 40 months' imprisonment and Varsha Sabhnani a sentence of 132 months' imprisonment. The district court further ordered both defendants to pay substantial restitution to their victims and to forfeit their ownership interest in their home, where their victims had been held during the commission of the crimes at issue. On appeal, the Sabhnanis raise challenges to the district court's refusal to grant the defendants' request for a change of venue, its refusal to compel an independent psychiatric evaluation of a prosecution witness, its management of the presentation of witness testimony, the content of the jury instructions, the sufficiency of the evidence, the extent of the district court's inquiry into purported juror misconduct, the calculation of the applicable Guidelines sentencing range, the amount of restitution, and the scope of the property forfeiture. We vacate the district court's award of restitution to the victims and remand for recalculation of the amount. In all other respects we find Defendants-Appellants' arguments to be without merit."

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