New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
August 2, 2008

EDNY Judge Issues Notable Decision on Forfeiture and Restitution in Peonage Case

The bizarre and tragic case of the Sabhnanis – a successful immigrant couple convicted of harboring and abusing their immigrant domestic workers, discussed already, here, here and here – has occasioned two new notable decisions on forfeiture and restitution, which are a stark reminder that collateral consequences of conviction can be punishing too, and in some cases, the deepest cut of all.  

Forfeiture of the Sabhnanis’ Home

At issue in United States v. Sabhnani, 07 CR 429 (ADS), 2008 WL 2791970 (E.D.N.Y. July 19, 2008), was whether on top of sentences of 40 and 132 months, respectively, the husband and wife defendants should also forfeit their Long Island home, including the husband’s office annexed to the home.  The jury had found the home subject to forfeiture in a supplemental verdict.  The Sabhnanis challenged the forfeiture verdict as a violation of the Excessive Fines Clause, which the Supreme Court has held in United States v. Bajakian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998), requires that “the amount of the forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it was designed to punish.”  

Applying the factors set forth in Bajakian – “the essence of the crime,” whether the respondent was within the class of persons targeted by the forfeiture statute, the maximum sentence and fine, and the nature of the harm caused – the district court rejected the claim.  Here, “the essence of the Defendants’ crimes involve harboring illegal aliens and forcing them to perform domestic labor,” Varsha Sabhnani “actually caused serious bodily injury to the victims,” the crimes of conviction carried substantial maximum sentences, and the harm to the victims, who had been “starved, tortured, cut and beaten over the course of years” was “truly grave.”  

In addition, the court rejected Mahender Sabhnani’s separate arguments that the forfeiture violated the Excessive Fines Clause as to him because “he played an almost entirely passive role in the offenses,” and at the very least, the forfeiture order should not include his office annexed to the home.  While agreeing that he was less culpable than his wife, the court pointed out that the jury’s verdict as to Mahender contradicted any claim of passivity, and the home office was not only physically part of the home property, it was also involved in the offenses and used to facilitate the commission of the crimes.  


In another decision of the same date, United States v. Sabhnani, 2008 WL 2791869 (E.D.N.Y. June 19, 2008), the court calculated the restitution owed by the defendants to the domestic worker victims, which involved a complicated interaction between the mandatory restitution provisions of the Trafficking Victims and Violence Protection Act, the liquidated damages provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the procedures established in the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act.  

Notably, the court rejected the request by Varsha Sabhnani for a detailed factual hearing with testimony from the victims regarding the appropriate amount of the restitution.  Quoting the Second Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Maurer, 226 F.3d 150 (2d Cir.2000), the court noted that it had discretion to determine sentencing procedures, and that no hearing was necessary where “the trial record shed substantial light on the propriety of the restitution award, and the record reveals that [the defendant] had ample opportunity to present his views.” 

See Archives for all posts since September 2007.