When L. Boogie released her classic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, her future seemed bright and full of promise. The album sold more than 19 million copies worldwide, and brought Lauryn Hill international success and fame. At the 1999 Grammy Awards, Hill broke records by becoming both the first woman ever to be nominated in ten categories in a single year, and the first woman to win five times in one night. Surely, the Queen of the Hill was here to stay.
So when Hill was arrested, charged and pled guilty, in June, 2012, to three counts of failure to file tax returns for income earned in 2005, 2006 and 2007, many were surprised. What happened? Not only was Hill known for her success as an entertainer, but she was also known for her humanitarian projects such as funding an outreach organization for at-risk youth and staging a rap concert in Harlem to promote voter registration.
Hill was charged with three counts of violating 26 U.S.C sect. 7203 which states in part:
Any person required under this title to pay a tax, or required to make a return who willfully fails to pay such tax, make such return, at the time or times required by law or regulations, shall, in addition to other penalties provided by law, be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $25,000 or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.
Count 1 of the Information filed by the United States against Hill in the District Court of New Jersey alleges that Hill, who is the owner of four corporations, knowingly and willfully failed to make an income tax return to the IRS on income she received in 2005 (primarily from music and movie royalties) which was in excess of $818,000. Count 2 of the Information makes the same allegation with regard to income she received in 2006 which was in excess of $222,000. Count 3 makes the same allegation with regard to income Hill received in 2007 which was in excess of $761,000.
In response to the charges, Hill released a statement on her Tumblr page in which she states that she did whatever was needed to be done in order to insulate her family from the climate of hostility, false entitlement, manipulation, racial prejudice, sexism and ageism. “I did not deliberately abandon my fans, nor did I deliberately abandon any responsibilities, but I did however put my safety, health and freedom and the freedom, safety and health of my family first over all other material concerns. I conveyed all of this when questioned as to why I did not file taxes during this time period. Obviously, the danger I faced was not accepted as reasonable grounds for deferring my tax payments, as authorities, who despite being told all of this, still chose to pursue action against me.”
This statement may have caused some concern, but Hill is no stranger to controversy. In 2002-2003 it was reported that Hill fired her management team, and stopped doing interviews, watching television and listening to music. Then there was the report about Hill’s performance at the Vatican in 2003, where Hill, referring to molestation of boys by Catholic priests in the United States, asked the crowd, “who feels sorry for the men, women and children damaged psychologically, emotionally and mentally by the sexual perversions and abuse carried out by the people they believed in?” Hill then called on church leaders to “repent.”
Hill’s behavior also gained the attention of her former band members. A few years ago, Wyclef Jean, former band mate, told MTV that Hill should see a psychiatrist to seek help. This sentiment was echoed by the other Fugees band mate, Pras, who referring to Hill in 2007 said, “at this point I really think it will take an act of God to change her, because she is that far out there.”
When these events and statements are viewed together, some may wonder about Hill’s mental health and whether her condition at the time may have caused her to neglect her responsibility to pay taxes. Did Hill’s attorney consider the defense of diminished capacity? After all, if Hill’s emotional state caused her not to file tax returns, then surely, she can’t be guilty. However courts have found that diminished capacity is not a defense to the crime of willful failure to file tax returns.
In United States v. Freeman, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit adopted section 4.01 of the Model Penal Code as the standard for criminal responsibility. This section states that a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law. The Code further explained, however, that the term ‘mental disease or defect’ does not include an abnormality manifested by antisocial conduct.
“Therefore,” says Reginald Mombrun, tax professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law, “if Hill’s conduct had included behavior such as physically burning her money or throwing it out on the street, then it could be argued that she lacked the capacity to understand anything about her finances including her obligation to pay taxes.” But it is clear that Hill’s behavior, although described by some as bizarre, does not meet the legal standard for an insanity defense. After all, Hill was running four corporations at the time.
So the strategy used by Hill’s attorneys may very well have been the best way to defend her. The section under which Hill was charged gives the magistrate discretion to impose a non-incarceratory sentence. Therefore, the best strategy would be for Hill to plead guilty, and do everything possible to convince the magistrate that a jail sentence would serve no purpose.
In his application to the magistrate for a non-incarceratory sentence, Hill’s lawyer will probably raise these points: (1) By pleading guilty, Hill saved the government the money and precious resources it would take to try the case; (2) Hill’s guilty plea would allow the prosecution to meet its main objective which is to send a message to deter other potential tax evaders; and, (3) Hill (hopefully) paid off her entire tax debt before sentencing – thereby accepting responsibility and showing remorse.
But will this be enough to keep Hill out of jail when she is sentenced on November 27, 2012? It should be. In addition to the mitigating factors mentioned above, there’s also the argument that the trauma Hill’s six children would suffer if she goes to jail would by far outweigh any possible ‘benefit’ a jail sentence would bring to the prosecution.
Hill’s fans are undoubtedly praying for Hill and wishing her well. As Hill’s sentencing date approaches, many find solace and hope in the words of her song, Everything is everything, “What is meant to be, will be. After winter, must come spring. Change, it comes eventually.”
UPDATE: The US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey reported today (11/28/12) that Ms. Hill’s sentencing was postponed to March 11, 2013. Ms. Hill’s case is now before Judge Madeline Arleo.