U.S. v. SERAFINI, NO. 15-4383

Decided: June 10, 2016

The Fourth Circuit determined that the district court had the authority to issue a restitution order under 14 U.S.C. § 88(c), and therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court.

On May 11, 2014, officers discovered defendant, Brian Serafini, intoxicated in an unauthorized boat that had drifted into a restricted marine area at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company.  As officers questioned Serafini, Serafini explained that he and an unidentified man on the boat with him began fighting and eventually Serafini trough the man overboard.  Upon hearing those facts, the Coast Guard and other local agencies immediately set out to find the person Serafini allegedly tossed into the water.  During the search, Serafini was arrested for public intoxication. While in custody, he disclosed that he may have imagined the man on the boat with him.  The search was eventually called off after the Coast Guard could not find any evidence indicating that someone had been thrown off Serafini’s boat.  The total cost of the rescue efforts was $117,913, which the district court ordered Serafini to pay in restitution.  The district court reasoned that the award was statutorily authorized.  Serafini appealed the ruling with respect to the order of restitution.

Despite Serafini’s argument that Section 88(c) permits the Coast Guard to only seek civil redress against those who communicate false distress messages, the Fourth Circuit opined that Section 88(c)(3) was designed to hold individuals “liable” in either criminal or civil proceedings for “all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s actions.”  The Court reasoned that if Congress wanted to limit subsection 88(c)(3) to civil proceedings, it presumably would have done so explicitly, as it did in subsection 88(c)(2)—which uses the language, “subject to civil penalty.”  Furthermore, the Court noted that a critical feature of the statute itself is that it is a criminal provision.  Thus, unlike the civil carve out specified in subsection (c)(2), Congress had no need to state in what is generally a criminal statute that subsection (c)(3) authorizes criminal liability.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgement of the district court.

Full Opinion

Aleia M. Hornsby

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