MIAMI – Hot-shot action hero Wesley Snipes faces losing his movie fortune and possibly a lengthy prison stay for his failure to pay income taxes for the years 1999-2004, according to legal experts.
The star of such films as the “Blade” trilogy and director Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” is charged in an Ocala, Fla., court with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government, filing a false claim for $11 million in refunds for the years 1996 and 1997 and for not filing tax returns for six years beginning in 1999.
The first two charges are considered felony offenses for which the actor could get up to 16 years in prison. The third charge for not filing claims for six years is a civil charge, according to one expert, and does not carry a prison sentence, though Snipes would be responsible for paying back taxes and fines if he is found guilty.
His two co-defendants, Eddie Ray Kahn and Douglas P. Rosile, face 10 years apiece for their respective roles as consulting tax-avoidance professionals.
Both men are considered well-known tax protesters who aided Snipes by citing a section of the federal tax code known as the 861 provision. According to members of the anti-tax movement like Snipes and his co-defendants, the 861 provision does not specifically list wages as taxable. It does however read that “compensation for services” rendered are taxable.
Kahn once served a sentence for a tax-related crime and both men were ordered by a federal court to cease promoting avoidance.
Prosecutors have also accused Snipes of moving much of his wealth to off-shore accounts and said they would prove the actor purposefully gave the government three checks totaling $14 million that were never covered by Snipes’ accounts.
Lawyers for Snipes are expected to argue that their client sincerely does not believe he owed any back taxes based on his interpretation of the 861 provision.
Snipes is known to have an ongoing association with an African-American anti-tax group known as the “Nuwaubians,” based in neighboring Georgia. Snipes requested a permit to build a military-style training facility for the group, though the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms denied the request, The New York Times reported Monday.
Tax lawyer Michael Louis Minns, who has successfully defended clients in several high-profile tax cases, speculated that Snipes was “going to get hit with huge fine and penalties for failure to pay” taxes. According to Minns, the actor could be forced to pay up to 300 percent of what he owes including penalties, essentially bankrupting the one-time box-office heavyweight.
Minns also predicted that Snipes could get anywhere between 5-10 years in prison is found guilty. He added that the $14 million in bad checks Snipes sent to the IRS to cover his tax debt could negate any effort by his attorneys to argue that Snipes believed he did not owe taxes on his income.
Meanwhile, jury selection in the case began earlier this week. Heading into trial, attorneys for the 45-year-old Snipes listed some 70 character witnesses for the case including boxing great Muhammad Ali, actor Sylvester Stallone and former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.
Ahead of the jury selection, Snipes fought to have the trial moved from the central Floridian town saying the racist attitudes of its inhabitants would prevent him from getting a fair trial. According to local reports, the pool of potential jurors was predominantly white.
After Monday’s jury selection Snipes did not speak with media on the advice of his attorneys, though one of his advisers, Daniel Meachum, issued a brief statement.
"We want the jury to understand that Wesley Snipes is very much like everybody at the same time, and at the same time very different," said Meachum.