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Media Alerts - USA v. Binyamin Stimler - Third Circuit
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July 11, 2017
  USA v. Binyamin Stimler - Third Circuit
Headline: No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in CSLI, religious freedom did not preclude rabbis' prosecution for kidnapping

Area of Law: Criminal Law

Issue(s) Presented: Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in cell site location information?? Was the government's kidnapping prosecution substantially burdensome to the religious beliefs of the defendants? Was an FBI sting sufficiently outrageous to violate due process?

Brief Summary:
Three rabbis appeal their convictions for conspiracy to kidnap recalcitrant husbands to force them to agree to divorce. They claimed error in denying a motion to suppress evidence, a Fourth Amendment violation, violation of the Religious Freedome Restoration Act, jury instruction errors, and a due process violation. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that the third-party doctrine does not apply to cell site location information (CSLI) and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in CSLI. The Court also affirmed that the government has a compelling interest in preventing kidnapping and the prosecution did not substantially burden the defendants' religious beliefs. The Third Circuit also found that evidence of the defendants' religious practices was not relevant to the affirmative defense of consent and could, therefore, be excluded. The Court rejected the argument that the FBI's sting operation which led to the arrests was so outrageous that it violated due process. Finally, the Court affirmed the finding that the co-conspirator statements were admissible because they were made in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Extended Summary:

Binyamin Stimler, Jay Goldstein, and Mendel Epstein were convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. All three men were Orthodox Jewish rabbis. They were involved with a kidnapping ring, where the rabbis would kidnap and torture Jewish husbands to coerce them to sign divorce contracts. After being arrested during an FBI sting, all three men were convicted following a jury trial.

The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision to deny Goldstein's motion to suppress cell site location information (CSLI) evidence. Under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), the government can require a provider to disclose records when a court order is obtained, if there are reasonable grounds for requiring this information. This standard was satisfied because the government was able to demonstrate that it had sufficient reason to believe that the CSLI would be able to assist in the investigation. The Court relied In re Application, which held that the third-party doctrine does not apply to CSLI and that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in CSLI. The Court determined that subsequent cases from other circuits were not sufficient to undermine the holding in In re Application and that Supreme Court precedent was distinguished so that denial of the motion to suppress was appropriate.

The Court next found that defendants were unable to demonstrate that the government substantially burdened their religious beliefs. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), government conduct cannot substantially burden an individual's exercise of religion, unless that burden is the "least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest." The defendants had the original burden of proving that the government substantially burdened their religious beliefs and they were unable to show that they lacked acceptable alternative means to assist the women in getting divorces. In addition, the government has a compelling interest in preventing serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

The Court held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence about Orthodox Jewish marital law. The Court affirmed that evidence of religious practices was not relevant to raising the affirmative defense of consent because there was no specific consent given to the particular kidnappings and therefore, the religious evidence was not relevant. The Court was also concerned that religious evidence might have prejudiced the jury.

The Third Circuit found no error regarding the District Court's jury instructions. The Court concluded that the District Court's instruction regarding the conspiracy charge was sufficient because the instructions, as a whole, made it clear that the charge contained a jurisdictional element. The Court found no error regarding the kidnapping instruction because many jury instructions have been upheld that do not include a temporal element. A reasonable jury would have found that the defendants' actions involved "an appreciable period of time." The Court also found no error in the jury instruction that referred to the specific motive that was charged in the indictment.

The Court affirmed the District Court's decision to admit statements made by alleged co-conspirators. The Court determined that the statements were not testimonial because the individuals would not have believed their statements would be used to aid in a criminal prosecution. The Confrontation Clause was not violated by the admission of these statements. The admissibility of the statements was appropriate under the Federal Rules of Evidence because the individuals were members of the kidnapping team and co-conspirators. Their statements were made in furtherance of the conspiracy and thus properly admitted.

The Court concluded that the due process claim, that the sting operation was outrageous, was barred because the argument was not made in District Court. However, the Court determined that, even if the argument was allowed, no due process violation occurred. The government's operation could not be considered "so outrageous" to be considered as a due process violation.

Judge Restrepo concurred in the judgment but would have held that the government's actions, regarding the CSLI, were a warrantless search that violates the Fourth Amendment. In all other aspects of the opinion, Judge Restrepo concurred.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/154053p.pdf

Panel: Chagares, Restrepo, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: January 25, 2017

Date of Issued Opinion: July 7, 2017

Docket Number: No. 15-4053, 4094, 4095

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kristina Flatley

Counsel: Nathan Lewin and Gedalia Stern, Counsel for Appellant Stimler; Aidan O'Connor, Counsel for Appellant Goldstein; Laura Gasiorowski and Robert Stahl, Counsel for Appellant Epstein; Mark Coyne, Norman Gross, and Glenn Moramarco, Counsel for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Roth

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 07/11/2017 03:58 PM     3rd Circuit  

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