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Polygamous sect leader wins motion in fraud case

FILE - This Jan. 21, 2015, file photo, Lyle Jeffs leaves the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. Polygamous sect leader Jeffs has been captured after being on the run for nearly a year. An FBI spokeswoman said Thursday, June 15, 2017, that Jeffs was arrested in South Dakota on Wednesday, June 14. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah polygamous sect leader accused of food stamp fraud scored a victory this week when a judge ruled he won't allow prosecutors to tell a jury that donating the food after it's purchased is prohibited.

But in a split ruling, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart sided against Lyle Jeffs on Wednesday, allowing prosecutors to tell jurors at an upcoming trial that food stamps can only be used to buy food.

Prosecutors accuse Jeffs of orchestrating a scheme in which products purchased with food stamps were donated to a communal storehouse and used to divert funds to front companies to pay for a tractor, a truck and other items.

Jeffs was first arrested in February 2016 with 10 other members of his sect based on the Utah-Arizona border. He became a fugitive after he slipped of an ankle monitoring device in in June of that year. He was caught in South Dakota on June 14 after pawn shop workers spotted him and called police.

Stewart noted in his ruling that Jeffrey Cohen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture testified last year in a hearing for another defendant that there are no precise, written regulations that prohibit sharing goods purchased with food stamps. The federal benefit program for low-income families is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Stewart said federal prosecutors proposed jury instruction would lead to "absurd results."

"Under the government's interpretation a SNAP recipient could face criminal prosecution if they donated cookies to a school bake sale that were made from food obtained through the use of SNAP benefit," Stewart wrote. "Similarly, a SNAP beneficiary could face federal charges if they donated excess food to their local food bank. The court refuses to construe the statutes or regulations so broadly as to sweep in this type of innocent conduct."

Stewart made a similar ruling in November 2016 for the other defendants.

Shortly after, the defendants resolved their cases with federal prosecutors to avoid prison time.

Nine took plea deals, and charges against accountant Nephi Allred were dropped earlier this year by prosecutors who said doing so was in the "interest of justice" but declined to elaborate.

Jeffs faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on a failure-to-appear in court charge. Charges of benefits fraud and money laundering carry possible 5- and 10-year sentences.

In a separate decision Thursday, Stewart denied Jeffs' request to sever new failure-to-appear charges stemming from his time as a fugitive from the fraud charges. He said Jeffs' assertion that prosecutors may try to use to show the jury he fled from home confinement in June 2016 due to a "guilty conscience" didn't outweigh the inconvenience to the court.

The trial is scheduled to begin in late October.

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