This summer, third-year Texas Tech law student Tashika Curlee accomplished a feat that has eluded even seasoned criminal defense attorneys: she won a case at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. While interning at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Lubbock, she and Assistant Federal Public Defender Brandon Beck (’12) appealed a restitution award imposed by a federal district court in Dallas. Although their client had pleaded guilty to defrauding the Grand Prairie Independent School District of nearly a million dollars, the court’s restitution award included not only what the client had embezzled but also repayment of the school district’s attorney fees and costs associated with a private internal audit. Trial counsel had objected to the latter amounts but were overruled.
In the course of her legal research on the appeal, Curlee identified a similar case that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided on May 29, 2018, only days earlier: Lagos v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1684 (2018). In Lagos, the Court unanimously held that a district court’s authority under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996 was “limited to government investigations and criminal proceedings,” and did not include “private investigations and civil proceedings.” Id. at 1687. Based on Curlee’s research, Beck and Curlee decided to focus their initial brief on the Court’s reasoning and holding in Lagos.
It worked. Instead of filing a brief in response, the lead counsel for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas conceded and filed a motion to vacate the unlawful portion of the restitution award and to remand for resentencing before the district court. On remand, the district court reformed its judgment to reflect the precise amounts that Beck and Curlee had argued were appropriate. It was a big win for both the client and the Federal Public Defender’s Office that was made possible by the diligent efforts of Tashika Curlee. It will be exciting to see what she does next.