Juror In SDNY Pot Biz Trial Tests Positive For Coronavirus

By Pete Brush
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Law360, New York (March 4, 2021, 10:18 AM EST) -- Manhattan U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff said Thursday morning that a female juror hearing conspiracy charges against two men accused of tricking banks into processing $150 million of pot transactions has tested positive for COVID-19 but that the trial would continue.

The judge's announcement came on the morning of a fourth day of an expected three-week trial for businessmen Hamid Akhavan and Ruben Weigand. It's the first trial in a white collar case in the Southern District of New York since November.

Akhavan, who also goes by Ray, and Weigand allegedly conspired to deprive merchant banks of property rights by tricking them into processing credit card and debit card transactions on behalf of Eaze, a San Francisco-based marijuana delivery service nicknamed the "Uber of Pot," from 2016 until 2019 by using fake product descriptions and dummy websites. They deny the allegations, arguing they had no criminal intent.

The trial has so far featured testimony from executives from Eaze and Mastercard, as well as a disclosure by prosecutors that the government is moving quickly to turn over newly discovered evidence related to a key cooperating witness who has yet to take the stand.

But on Thursday morning it seemed momentarily questionable if the trial would continue at all.

"Oh no, we have a bigger problem," Judge Rakoff said prior to the beginning of the trial day. After consulting a medical expert, however, the judge said the juror would be replaced with an alternate and the trial would continue.

"The powers that be are comfortable with our continuing," the judge said. "This is why we have alternates."

The Southern District of New York has been holding in-person proceedings on a limited basis since mid-February. The juror's positive test for the potentially deadly virus was the first known case in the Southern District of a participant testing positive after having spent significant time in court along with others.

The district's trial courtrooms are outfitted for social distancing, as is the jurors' break room. All participants are coached to remain six feet apart and are asked to wear two masks apiece.

Judge Rakoff said it was possible that jurors could have had "slight contact" with one another, and said the court would monitor the situation. The jury was seated just before 10 a.m. Thursday and trial resumed. 

Before noon the judge then disclosed the positive test to the jury, saying remaining jurors would be able to avail themselves to free testing. He said the odds of a double-masked, socially distanced juror transmitting the virus to others were "extremely low."

However, Judge Rakoff did excuse another female juror who reported distress over a personal issue, doing so out of an "excess of caution." That decision left the court with a jury of 12 and one alternate juror.

The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday and is expected to last two more weeks.

Akhavan is represented by William Burck, Christopher Tayback and Sara Clark of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and Ira Rothken and Jared Smith of the Rothken Law Firm LLP.

Weigand is represented by Michael Gilbert, Shriram Harid, Steven Pellechi and Amy Lesperance of Dechert LLP and by Michael Artan of Michael H. Artan PC.

The government is represented by Nicholas Folly, Tara La Morte and Emily Deininger of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

The case is U.S. v. Weigand, case number 1:20-cr-00188, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

Update: This story has been updated to add additional comments made by the judge.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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USA v. Weigand

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New York Southern

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March 05, 2020

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