March 05, 2013
Eleventh Circuit Finds Violation of Customs Regulation Not Criminal
One of the several troubling aspects of the continuing overcriminalization of federal law is the frequent elevation of a violation of civil regulation to a crime. In United States v. Izurieta, 11th Cir., 11-13585 (February 22, 2013), the Eleventh Circuit addressed this issue.
The defendants in Izurieta were convicted after trial by jury of violating the general smuggling statute, 18 U.S.C. 545, importing goods "contrary to law," by violating a customs regulation, 19 C.F.R. 142.113(c), in failing to redeliver to Customs for exportation or destruction goods purportedly contaminated with E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and/or Salmonella which had been conditionally released.
The defendants appealed on various grounds -- significantly not including whether the indictment sufficiently charged a crime by relying on the Customs regulation. At oral argument, however, the Court raised this issue sua sponte and ordered supplemental briefing.
Section 545, as pertinent here, reads:
Whoever fraudulently or knowingly imports or brings into the United States, any merchandise contrary to law, or in any manner facilitates the transportation, concealment, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be fined . . . or imprisoned . . . .
The regulation or "law" upon the charges here were based covered the "failure to deliver, export, and destroy with FDA supervision" certain foods found to be adulterated. 19 C.F.R. 141.113(c).
The Court in its opinion recognized a split among circuits on when a regulation constitutes the "law" upon which a Section 545 indictment may be based. The Ninth Circuit in United States v. Alghazouli, 517 F.3d 1179, 1187 (9th Cir. 2008) took what the opinion called "a relatively narrow interpretation" of Section 545 that regulations are included in "law" only when "there is a statute (a 'law') that specifies that violation of that regulation is a crime." The Fourth Circuit in United States v. Mitchell, 39 F.3d 465, 470 (4th Cir. 1994), to the contrary, took what the opinion called a "more expansive" view, deciding that Section 545 criminalizes violations of any regulation "having the force and effect of law" based on a three-prong test.
The Court, while claiming its binding authority, Bobb v. United States, 252 F.2d 702, 707 (5th Cir. 1958) was consistent with the Fourth Circuit's "expansive" approach in Mitchell, applied the rule of lenity and held that the regulation in question did not qualify as a "law" for purposes of Section 545 liability. It found that the regulation in question was primarily to reflect contractual requirements between Customs and the importer and thus was "civil only."
The rule of lenity was premised, it said, on two ideas: first, that "a fair warning should be given . . . of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed" and, second, that "legislators and not courts should define criminal activity."
This apparent case-by-case approach, of course, does not establish a "bright line" as to when violations of an administrative regulation become a crime. Citizens and attorneys will often have to guess whether a violation of a regulation is a crime; that is, "what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed." The case may, however, curb the government's increasing efforts to convert violations of ostensible civil regulations into crimes.
This case should remind lawyers that the uncertainties in this area require that they pay attention at both the trial and appellate levels to the issue of whether a violation of an administrative regulation is a crime.
(A hat tip to Paul Kish and the Federal Criminal Lawyer Blog)