Law360, Washington (April 10, 2020, 9:04 PM EDT) -- A D.C. federal judge has placed a local resident on home detention and GPS monitoring, partially rejecting federal prosecutors' request to keep the man in jail for allegedly operating a website that sold coronavirus-related protection products and permitted customers to make donations to a "Global Coronavirus Relief Fund."
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ordered Craven Casper's release from jail on Thursday, but issued a series of restrictions. Casper was arrested and charged with wire fraud on April 3 amid allegations that he fraudulently solicited and kept donations meant for the coronavirus response, accepted online payments from customers and failed to ship the purchased products, including respirator masks and hand sanitizers.
Judge Mehta said Casper is barred from accessing the internet and electronic devices but may use a phone for limited purposes — namely medical appointments, consultation with counsel and reporting to pretrial services. The partially redacted order also said he will be monitored by an unidentified person at his residence and that Casper is prohibited from leaving his home or traveling without the court's permission, except in the event of an emergency.
The order doesn't say why Judge Mehta issued this condition of release pending sentencing in another fraud case. But according to ABC News, the judge voiced concerns during a teleconference hearing on Thursday over the growing number of inmates in the D.C. jail system being infected with the novel coronavirus. According to the network, Judge Mehta said that 37 people had tested positive for the disease as of Wednesday, and that number had grown by nine in the past 24 hours alone.
While the outbreak of the virus at the D.C. jail is not as widespread as those in jails in Chicago, New York and other major urban areas, there are mounting calls for D.C. Department of Corrections to release inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia and the D.C. Public Defender Service filed a class action last month alleging that inmates are subject to unsafe conditions at jail facilities.
Their suit, seeking to represent a class of approximately 1,600 inmates, demands a downsizing of the inmate population, new safety measures and an independent monitor. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is overseeing the class action, heard oral arguments on Tuesday in the plaintiffs' emergency bid for a temporary restraining order.
In Casper's case, prosecutors said in court filings that the defendant began operating the website CoronavirusProtectionMasks.org
on Feb. 24.
Records obtained revealed he processed more than 140 transactions for customer purchases that occurred through the website from Feb. 27 to March 12 totaling $8,938.74 over the nearly two-week period, prosecutors alleged. Casper allegedly transferred more than $7,950 to an outside bank account at Coastal Community Bank, and at least 24 customers filed disputes with their credit card providers, according to court filings.
Casper is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to another fraud case in which he faces a maximum of 20 years imprisonment and a possible criminal fine of $250,000, court filings said.
Prosecutors said the "professional fraudster" admitted to carrying out a mail fraud scheme by filing bogus tax returns in 15 states and D.C., and he allegedly obtained 47 tax refund checks that valued almost $198,000.
"The possibility of economic danger to the community if the defendant is released is based on the defendant's ability to commit sophisticated frauds using computers and posing as other individuals. Indeed, in the last four years alone, the defendant has racked up seven felony fraud convictions," prosecutors told Judge Mehta in an April 6 filing. "The government has no doubt that, should Casper be released, he will attempt to defraud others while awaiting sentencing in his pending matter."
Casper argued in a filing that the D.C. DOC has taken "minimal steps" to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and that he has "health issues" that could further put him at risk. "The emerging consensus among public health experts is that it is absolutely critical to reduce incarceration in order to contain the spread of this virus," he added.
Casper's attorney declined to comment on Friday. A representative for prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The decision came almost a month after U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Shea of the District of Columbia, in coordination with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, announced efforts to detect COVID-19 scams, prevent citizens from falling prey to them and hold fraudsters accountable. Other U.S. attorney's offices, federal and state agencies have unveiled similar measures.
The government is represented by Michael J. Marando of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.
Casper is represented by Michelle M. Peterson of the Federal Public Defender for the District of District of Columbia.
The case is U.S. v. Casper, case number 1:20-cr-00061, in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Editing by Nicole Bleier.
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