Wesley Snipes had only been convicted of misdemeanors concerning his failure to file income tax returns.
And the action movie star had submitted written character testimonials from Denzel Washington, Woody Harrelson, and television's Judge Joe Brown to assist him in the judge’s consideration of his sentencing.
Through his attorneys, Snipes asked for probation rather than prison, which is the normal sentence with a conviction of someone without a criminal history. Still, in spite of it all, U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges sentenced Snipes to three years in prison.
Why did this happen?
Well, in February 2008, a federal jury acquitted Snipes of felony tax fraud and conspiracy (which could have placed him in the slammer for more than a decade) but convicted the actor on three misdemeanor counts of failing to file a tax return.
Snipes’ two co-defendants, a defrocked accountant and a tax protest leader, were convicted on the felony counts and may go to jail for 10 years.
Because Snipes is a celebrity, his case has received an enormous amount of publicity. In defense of his actions, he essentially asserted tax protest arguments that have consistently been brushed aside by the courts.
Unfortunately, unscrupulous people sell books, tapes and the like, which end up convincing some people that they don’t have to pay income tax.
Snipes claimed that the tax code did not mandate payment of income taxes by citizens who earned the money in this country. He additionally claimed that the IRS is not a legitimate government entity and therefore had no legal authority to collect taxes.
Jurors found that the actor failed to file for three years.
In the sentencing memo filed by his lawyer, Snipes also asserted that he didn’t have to file returns because he “was a 'stateless person' or 'nonresident alien.'”
The prosecutors’ sentencing memo stated that Snipes' policy was “to send checks received at his business office for deposit offshore.”
In addition, the memo stated that the actor paid approximately “$498,000 in personal payments to Snipes' grandmother, his former wife, his then-fiancee, his personal lawyer, a tax defier organization, and M&S Finance, the Swiss alter-ego to which he fraudulently conveyed his business holdings in 1999,” and that the amount of unreported gross income for the three-year period was “$13 million.”
Snipes exhibited a “history of contempt over a period of time” for U.S. tax laws, the judge said.
You can bet Judge Hodges knew full well that lots of people who maintain similar beliefs to Snipes and his co-defendants were watching the case and would be encouraged not to file and not to pay if Snipes hadn’t been given the max.
James Hirsen is a media analyst, Trinity Law School professor, and teacher of mass media law at Biola University.
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