Monday, January 14, 2008

Will Wesley Snipes Avoid Going To Jail for Tax Evasion?

Obviously, this will be for a jury to decide. However, the argument that Wesley Snipes seems to be making "that the law doesn't require U.S. citizens to pay tax and that the government is collecting taxes illegally" usually doesn't hold up in court.

Today the New York Times reported that Wesley Snipes is heading to court. The article "Wesley Snipes to Go on Trial in Tax Case" (by David Cay Johnston, January 14, 2008) identifies a number of criminal tax cases in which defendants have been acquitted of criminal tax charges based on the argument that they really didn't believe that they were required to pay taxes. This appears to be an argument that the defendants lacked the requisite "intent" needed to be guilty of the crime of tax evasion. Two points should be made here: 1) a defendent is lucky if this argument works and 2) these people, even if they manage to avoid the criminal conviction, usually do not avoid the tax liability.

In the article, David Johnston points out that the IRS has generally recovered the civil tax liability from all of the defendants that have managed to avoid the criminal conviction. What should be learned from this is that the law does require the payment of taxes. Those who intentionally choose not to pay taxes are committing a crime. Those who unintentionally fail to pay taxes will still be liable for the tax debt. Anybody that tells you differently, is selling something.

Ultimately, taxes must be paid according to the provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. However, it is not necessary to pay more than what is required by the law and, if the law permits, one can structure his or her affairs to reduce a tax liability as much as possible. As Judge Learned Hand once wrote:

"Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes. Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands."

Personally, I'll be surprised if Mr. Snipes is acquitted. Even if he is acquitted, I'm confident that he won't avoid the civil tax liability.

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