May 5, 2014 – Sargarsen Haldar, leader of a Hare Krishna temple in Milwaukee, was accused and convicted for illegally obtaining religious worker visas for people who were not religious workers. Recently, a federal appeals court rejected his appeal.
Haldar had wanted a new trial, arguing that the prosecutor misrepresented testimony made improper statements about the organization that were unfairly prejudicial. He also said the district court judge should have instructed the jury differently.
But in U.S. V. Haldar, No. 13-1238 (April 30, 2014), a panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, finding no reversible errors in the trial.
Haldar, who came to the United States from India, founded the Gaudiya Vaisnava (or Hare Krishna) Society, known as GVS-Milwaukee. Starting in 2004, he began sponsoring applicants for religious worker visas, and 17 were approved.
In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security began investigating GVS-Milwaukee. In 2010, Haldar was charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. At trial, a federal investigator told the jury that 33 percent of religious visa applications involve fraud.
Another agent said he interviewed three visa recipients sponsored by GVS-Milwaukee and they were not working in religious jobs. All three said Haldar agreed to help them get visas in exchange for payment between $20,000 and $30,000.
Haldar argued the visa recipients had deceived him, telling him they would be priests. Ultimately, the jury ruled against Haldar. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
On appeal, the panel rejected Haldar’s argument the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by wrongly insinuating that GVS-Milwaukee was a fraudulent organization, when the prosecution had promised to refrain from questioning the organization’s legitimacy.
“We accept the premise that a prosecutor who promises not to raise certain issues during trial but nonetheless does so – at least without warning and an opportunity for the defense to object – may engage in misconduct,” Judge David Hamilton wrote.
Don’t Miss Judge Hamilton & Judge Sykes at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting and Conference
Judge David Hamilton, who wrote the opinion in Haldar, is a featured speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC), June 26-27 in Lake Geneva. Hamilton and Judge Diane Sykes, both judges for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, will co-present “Methods of Appellate Judging: Textualism, Originalism, Pragmatism, or Letting a Thousand Flowers Bloom?"
Learn more about Judge Hamilton and Judge Sykes in a recent Q & A published in InsideTrack (login required). Learn more about the event at the AMC webpage.
“But we cannot conclude that such a promise was broken in this case, let alone that there was plain error,” Hamilton concluding, noting that Haldar’s lawyer did not object.
Haldar also noted that questioning Haldar’s religious sincerity influenced the jury’s decision to rule against him. Such accusations can improperly inflame the jury, he said.
“Haldar’s misuse of his position was the essence of the crime he was charged with committing. Nothing the prosecutor said during his opening statement was unfairly prejudicial,” Judge Hamilton noted.
The court also ruled that the federal investigator’s statements were not unduly prejudicial. The federal investigator told the jury that 33 percent of religious visa applications are fraudulent and suggested that any religious activity happening at the GVS-Milwaukee temple and another temple was a facade to promulgate the fraud.
The panel agreed that his statistic encouraged the jury to reach conclusions on the likelihood of fraud, based on the number of other fraudulent applications.
“A jury should no more have been told of that pool than it should have been given overall conviction rates for the category of crime that was charged,” Hamilton wrote.
However, the panel noted that Haldar’s attorney did not object. Thus, the court’s was reviewing the case for “plain error,” and Haldar could not satisfy that standard.
“A finding of plain error requires not only that the error be obvious but the defendant probably would not have been found guilty if not for the error,” the panel explained.
Based on the testimony of the three visa recipients and other evidence, the panel concluded, “Haldar was highly likely to have been convicted” anyway.
Finally, the panel ruled that the trial court did not commit error by failing to instruct the jury that the visa recipients were qualified religious workers based on the certifications obtained from India. The panel noted that courts are not required to give that instruction.
The court noted that the jury was asked to decide whether Haldar sponsored the applicants expecting they would be religious workers here.
“Performing that task would have been impossible if an instruction had required the jurors to accept that the applicants were religious workers simply because Haldar had managed to obtain certificates for them,” Judge Hamilton wrote.