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An Overview of 18 U.S. Code § 1956 - Laundering of Monetary Instruments – A Favorite Tool of Prosecutors

A gavel sitting next to a pair of handcuffs and a stack of dollar bills

In the context of federal legislation in the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 1956, often referred to as the Money Laundering Control Act, constitutes a critical piece of legislation pertaining to the laundering of monetary instruments [1][2]. Given its intersection with tax laws, particularly sections 7201 and 7206 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, it offers a comprehensive legal framework to combat the menace of money laundering and associated tax evasion. This article delves into an in-depth consideration of these provisions and their interplay [2][3]. This following discussion aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the law, its various elements, and the penalties involved.

Understanding the Premise

18 U.S.C. § 1956 et seq. primarily criminalizes financial transactions that involve proceeds from specified unlawful activities. Essentially, this implies that if a person, with knowledge that a property involved in a financial transaction represents the proceeds of some form of illegal activity, conducts or attempts to conduct such a financial transaction, he or she would be violating this law. Accordingly, United States prosecutors frequently use 18 U.S.C. § 1956 accompanied with linked allegations of mail or wire fraud, tax fraud, tax evasion and bank fraud.

Key Components of the Legislation

The law is applicable to scenarios where the individual conducts a financial transaction with the intent to either promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activities or to engage in conduct constituting a violation of certain sections of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 [1][2].

Furthermore, it is applicable in instances where the individual knowingly designs the transaction, in whole or part, to either conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, or to avoid a transaction reporting requirement under state or federal law. 18 U.S.C. § 1956 makes it unlawful for anyone knowing that the property involved in a financial transaction represents the proceeds of some form of unlawful activity, to conduct or attempt to conduct such a financial transaction [2]. Two main intentions are identified under this law. The first pertains to the promotion of the carrying on of specified unlawful activity. The second deals with the intent to engage in conduct constituting a violation of section 7201 or 7206 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, effectively bridging the gap between money laundering and tax laws.

Violations of Sections 7201 and 7206 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986

Section 7201 of the Internal Revenue Code deals with tax evasion, where an individual willfully attempts to evade or defeat any tax imposed by the federal laws [3]. The potential defenses for tax evasion can be insurmountable evidence of the taxpayer's ignorance of a due tax liability or an honest belief that the taxpayer was not violating any of the provisions of the tax laws.

On the other hand, section 7206 pertains to 'tax perjury' and covers fraudulent activities such as making false statements on a tax return or providing fraudulent information [3]. The critical element of this violation is the intent to defraud, where the accused knowingly provides incorrect information.

Intersection of Money Laundering and Tax Laws

18 U.S.C. § 1956 effectively incorporates violations of tax laws as a predicate offense for money laundering. If an individual knowingly engages in a financial transaction involving proceeds obtained from violations of sections 7201 or 7206 of the Internal Revenue Code, they may be found guilty of money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956. This intersection provides a robust mechanism for law enforcement agencies to combat tax evasion schemes that employ sophisticated money laundering techniques.

Involvement of Monetary Instruments and Funds

The legislation also addresses situations where an individual transports, transmits, or transfers, or attempts to transport, transmit, or transfer a monetary instrument or funds from a place in the United States to or through a place outside the United States or vice versa. This is subject to the condition that the monetary instrument or funds involved in the transportation, transmission, or transfer represent the proceeds of some form of unlawful activity.

Significance of the Legislation

In essence, the law not only contributes significantly to the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, tax evasion and other financial fraud but also serves as a deterrent to entities that might be tempted to engage in such illegal activities. It facilitates the prosecution of illegal activities that generate large sums of money and the subsequent attempts to conceal these activities.

In conclusion, 18 U.S. Code § 1956 is a pivotal piece of legislation that serves to discourage and penalize money laundering activities. The law is comprehensive and detailed, embodying a series of nuanced interpretations and applications that significantly contribute to its efficacy as a tool against financial crime.

Penalties and Sentencing

Violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1956 carry severe penalties, including a fine of not more than $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction, imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both[2]. Sentencing for tax crimes is guided by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The base offense level generally corresponds to the amount of tax loss, which equals the amount of taxes evaded by the taxpayer, excluding penalties or interest for the period in question [3].

Legal Procedures and Constitutional Considerations

Prosecuting tax and money laundering offenses involves intricate procedures, often entailing comprehensive investigations by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other law enforcement agencies. Important constitutional considerations are at play, especially those surrounding self-incrimination, due process, and the statute of limitations for violations. In addition, section 371 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, dealing with criminal conspiracy, often comes into play in cases involving large-scale tax fraud and money laundering.


In essence, the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1956, in combination with sections 7201 and 7206 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, form a robust legal framework for curbing money laundering and tax evasion. These laws underscore the seriousness of these offenses and their impact on society at large. By integrating tax violations into the ambit of money laundering, these provisions provide a comprehensive approach to combatting financial crime, deterring potential offenders, and maintaining economic integrity.

[1] Tax Crimes Handbook - Internal Revenue Service

[2] 18 U.S. Code § 1956 - Laundering of Monetary Instruments

[3] Tax Violations | Office of Justice Programs

Disclosure: This content is an overview. It is not a detailed analysis and offers no legal or tax opinion on which you should solely rely. Always seek the advice of competent legal and tax advisors to review your specific facts and circumstances before making any decisions or relying on the content herein.
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