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May 6, 2013

You be the judge: how would you sentence for the missed tax payments of Lauryn Hill?

Lauryn HillAfter a rescheduling and now some important repayments, an interesting and high-profile federal sentencing is on tap for this morning in Newark, New Jersey.  This new Reuters article provides the basics for all would-be federal sentencing judges to ponder in order to answer the question in the title of this post:

Hip hop artist Lauryn Hill, on the eve of her scheduled sentencing on federal tax evasion charges, has paid off the balance of more than $900,000 she owed in back taxes and penalties, her attorney said on Sunday.

The Grammy-winning musician is scheduled for sentencing on Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey on three charges she failed to file tax returns on more than $1.8 million between 2005 and 2007.  She faces up to a year in jail for each charge, but the final sentence is expected to be adjusted based on her repayment of the money, her attorney said.

She owed at least $504,000 in federal back taxes as well as state taxes and penalties that brought the estimated total to more than $900,000.  "Ms Hill has not only now fully paid prior to sentencing her taxes, which are part of her criminal restitution, but she has additionally fully paid her federal and state personal taxes for the entire period under examination through 2009," her attorney, Nathan Hochman, said in an email.

In April, Hill was admonished by U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo for failing to make promised payments on her unpaid taxes ahead of her sentencing.  She had expected to raise the money from a new recording contract last fall but only paid $50,000 when she did not complete the expected tracks, her attorney said.

Her attorney said last month that Hill lined up a loan secured by two pieces of real estate. He said on Sunday that the tax repayment came from a combination of sources but did not include funds from any new record sales.

A new single by Hill, her first in several years, called "Neurotic Society," was posted on iTunes on Friday.  She posted a link to the song on the social media site Tumblr on Saturday, writing, "Here is a link to a piece that I was ‘required' to release immediately, by virtue of the impending legal deadline.  "I love being able to reach people directly, but in an ideal scenario, I would not have to rush the release of new music... But the message is still there," she wrote.

Hill's 1998 solo album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" won the singer, a former member of the Fugees, five Grammy awards.

Given that it appears Hill has now made the government whole after her tax evasion crimes, and especially given that she apparently can be and wants to continue to be a productive tax-paying member of society, I believe I would be very eager to give Hill some kind of (harsh?  expensive?) alternative to imprisonment sentence.

For all sort of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, I think a significant fine plus a (very burdensome?) community service requirement could and should achieve all the congressional purposes of punishment better than a brief stint in prison.

Indeed, I think a creative shaming sentence could perhaps be especially appropriate in a case like this.It might be very beneficial, and I doubt unconstitutional, to require as part of a probation term that Hill write and release a few songs in which she discusses the consequences of failing to pay required federal taxes and/or in which she discusses the pros and cons of her experiences with the federal criminal justice system. 

UPDATE:  This AP story reports on the actual sentencing outcome for the federal tax code re-education of Lauryn Hill.  I will let readers click through so as not to turn this post into a "spoiler" before reading the comments.

May 6, 2013 at 10:19 AM | Permalink


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She was not convicted of "tax evasion," which is a felony. She pleaded guilty to failue to file, which is a misdemeanor. Hochman was the AAG of the Tax Div. for a little over a year under Geroge W. Bush.

Posted by: AUSA 12 | May 6, 2013 11:30:12 AM

My own CPA works on some extreme cases like this. He tells me that the reasons people don't file returns is really varied. Some people are just plain dishonest. Many are lazy, stupid, gullible, ignorant, sick, or just too busy. My own view is that if the taxes are paid in full along with penalties and interest then justice is served. I would let her go with seven years probation, and the sole proviso of her probation be that she has to file all required federal returns on time.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | May 6, 2013 11:35:22 AM

Thanks for your legal precision here, AUSA 12, but don't you think appropriate to describe what Hill did as involving "tax evasion crimes"? I assume she realized she had an obligation to file taxes from 2005 to 2007 and she sought to evade paying the taxes she owed. I know she got a sweet plea deal so that she avoided any felony convictions, but I still think it fair to consider Hill, in general terms, to be a tax evader, and not merely a failure-to-filer.

That said, the fact the feds let her plead to these lesser charges and that she now has perhaps the best tax lawyer money could buy, her crimes apparently are not on par with tax crimes of other celebrities who got serious jail terms for tax evasion like Wesley Snipes or Richard Hatch (though, to again focus on your legal point, I think Snipes may have been acquitted by a jury of all felony evasion counts).

In the end, I care more about the sentencing equities than the charge specifics or legal semantics: What sentence do you or others think Ms. Hill ought to get? I suspect the AAG of the Tax Div. for a little over a year under Geroge W. Bush now has a different opinion on this front than, say, frequent blog commentor Bill Otis. But maybe not...

Posted by: Doug B. | May 6, 2013 12:38:39 PM

if making bad music was a crime, she would have been locked up long ago.

Posted by: Erika | May 6, 2013 6:05:51 PM

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